Opinion | Let’s embrace the spirit of the Declaration this Fourth of July

Chance Phillips, Contributing Columnist

Every year since the Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence, Americans have celebrated on the Fourth of July. Constitution Day (Sept. 17) and Bill of Rights Day (Dec. 15) don’t get one one-thousandth of the enthusiasm we bring to Independence Day.

Unlike the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, the Declaration isn’t a legal document we must all still abide by. With its assertions about human nature and the role of government, it’s more a religious text than anything else.

If the Declaration still deserves to be celebrated every year, it’s not because of what actually happened in 1776 or anything a slave owner thought. It’s simply because its language has always resonated with those who possess the democratic spirit.

In his book “Inventing America,” Garry Wills complains that the Declaration of Independence has become “a blank check for idealists of all sorts to fill in as they like.” After all, South Carolina’s legislature abused Jefferson’s words to justify secession, and a century later, the Black Panther Party used them to argue for Black liberation.

Wills’ preferred understanding of the Declaration, however — the “drier air of [Jefferson’s] scientific maxims” — is too rarefied to keep a republic of hundreds of millions together. To bring a fractious nation together and justify the Fourth of July, the Declaration has to stand for something more substantial than cold, amoral logic. 

The basic history of the United States resists any understanding of the American project derived from blood and soil. Americans primarily understand their country as a nation founded on certain ideals. The most important task of American politics is determining what those ideals actually are.

Jefferson dreamed of a democracy of yeoman farmers. The nascent Republican Party adopted the tripartite goal of “Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men.” Franklin Roosevelt spoke of being “a good neighbor among the nations,” and Reagan rhapsodized about a “shining city upon a hill.”

Like any text we imbue with great psychic importance, the Declaration of Independence is routinely quoted and reinterpreted by those who claim they are filled with its spirit. Often this amounts to squabbling over what Jefferson really meant when writing this or that clause.

Luckily, the true meaning of the Declaration of Independence doesn’t matter. 

It’s probably even true that, as Wills says, “[Jefferson] would never encourage people to yearn back toward some ideal of perfection delivered to their forebears.”

Despite Jefferson’s wishes and Wills’ regrets, the Declaration remains an emotionally and spiritually charged text. When we choose to celebrate it every July, we make moral commitments we can and have failed to live up to.

Abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass famously cried that “the character and conduct of this nation never looked blacker to me than on this 4th of July!” Celebrating the signing of the Declaration while millions were enslaved was “mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy.”

Jefferson himself was surely no fan of true civil equality, what Jamelle Bouie describes as “a universal and inviolable grant of political and civil rights, backed by the force of the national government.” Nevertheless, everyone who believes in the promise of civil equality is able to look to the Declaration for inspiration.

Fifty-seven years after the Declaration was signed, a group of sixty abolitionists recognized it as the “corner-stone upon which they [the Founders] founded the Temple of Freedom.”

In 1848, a hundred men and women, including Frederick Douglass and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, signed a “Declaration of Sentiments” in Seneca Falls, New York. In form, content and rhetoric, they modeled their call for America to recognize women’s rights on the Declaration signed in Philadelphia decades prior.

Perhaps the Declaration was a dry document these dissenters simply mistook for an assertion of radical ideals. The “real” America may be more accurately reflected by the Constitution and all its moral compromises.

There will of course always be enemies of liberty and democracy who call America their home. The United States never wants for would-be Caesars opposed to the spirit of the Declaration and working to rebuild oppressive, unjust hierarchies.

At its best, America is also home to “idealists of all sorts”: abolitionists, socialists, suffragettes, civil rights activists and pacifists. It’s taken the dedication of many starry-eyed ideologues to make America a bit more equal and a bit more free with each generation.

The Revolutionary War lasted only eight years, but the difficult work of replacing British rule with a moral, self-governing commonwealth has never stopped. Every Fourth of July, we need to celebrate not just American independence but also all the hard-won progress that followed and that is yet to come. Independence Day should be a cherished opportunity for us to reflect on the work still left for us to do.

Hopefully we will soon celebrate independence from poverty, independence from war and independence from bigotry every Independence Day.