It is July 4th and the 241st anniversary of the declaration by the leaders of 13 colonies of their independence from Britain and the founding on a new nation. It was a nation founded on a principle of the Enlightenment, the principle that all men are created equal, and as their Declaration of Independence noted that as such are “endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
That founding principle was revolutionary and regardless of how badly it was many times lived out in the history of our nation, it was and still is the first time that a nation was not founded on the basis of ethnicity or religion, but rather a principle, a proposition that no matter how noble was, and still is often despised by Americans.
One of the most notable was George Fitzhugh, a major Southern slaveholder and apologist for not only slavery but the inequality of poor whites and women wrote:
“We must combat the doctrines of natural liberty and human equality, and the social contract as taught by Locke and the American sages of 1776. Under the spell of Locke and the Enlightenment, Jefferson and other misguided patriots ruined the splendid political edifice they erected by espousing dangerous abstractions – the crazy notions of liberty and equality that they wrote into the Declaration of Independence and the Virginia Bill of Rights. No wonder the abolitionists loved to quote the Declaration of Independence! Its precepts are wholly at war with slavery and equally at war with all government, all subordination, all order. It is full if mendacity and error. Consider its verbose, newborn, false and unmeaning preamble…. There is, finally, no such thing as inalienable rights. Life and liberty are not inalienable…. Jefferson in sum, was the architect of ruin, the inaugurator of anarchy. As his Declaration of Independence Stands, it deserves the appropriate epithets which Major Lee somewhere applies to the thought of Mr. Jefferson, it is “exuberantly false, and absurdly fallacious.
Fitzhugh also wrote:
“We conclude that about nineteen out of twenty individuals have “a natural and inalienable right” to be taken care of and protected, to have guardians, trustees, husbands or masters; in other words they have a natural and inalienable right to be slaves. The one in twenty are clearly born or educated in some way fitted for command and liberty.”
But he was not alone. In 1860 South Carolina led a procession of 11 states out of the Union based on the proposition that only certain men were created equal. Every declaration of secession had at its heart the statement that the institution of slavery was to be protected and expanded with the implication that African American slaves could never be equal, free, or enjoy the slightest legal protections of citizenship. These states were willing to fight a war for this and even at the end of that war many of their leaders resisted any call for granting emancipation to blacks, and then when that was over use terrorism and law to again strip away the rights from newly freed blacks through lynching, the Black Codes, and Jim Crow.
In 1852 not long after the passage of the Compromise of 1850 which included an enhanced Fugitive Slave Act which dictated that Northerners had to cooperate in the recapture and reenslavement of blacks residing in their free states, Frederick Douglass preached one of the most damning sermons about what July 4th meant to slaves. He said:
“I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy—a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices, more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States, at this very hour.”
Even so men like Fitzhugh would proclaim: “Liberty for the few – slavery in every form, for the mass.”
Of course such is not liberty, it is tyranny and it is the seedbed of dictatorship. The word liberty is often abused by those who seek total power and control over the lives of others. Abraham Lincoln said as much when he noted:
“We all declare for liberty” but “in using the same word we do not all mean the same thing. With some the word liberty may mean for each man to do as he pleases with himself and the product of his labor; while with others the same word may mean for some men to do as they please with other men and the product of other men’s labor.”
The proposition in the Declaration that all men are created equal is essential to understanding or appreciating liberty. If we view others as below us, as even less than human then we cannot say that we believe in liberty. If we decide to limit the right of citizens to speak out because of their color, their national origin, their race, their religion, their gender, or sexual identity then we are not for liberty, we are no better than George Fitzhugh or others, even the Nazis, who enslaved, imprisoned, and exterminated others in the name of their power, and their right.
If our concept of liberty is so limited by our ideology that we cannot accept others having it or being equal to us then we stand against the very proposition that the United States was founded and we should bury the American experiment and stop lying about a proposition that we no longer believe in. The eminent American jurist wrote these words, which for me are like the Declaration, the Preamble of the Constitution, the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s I Have a Dream speech are secular scripture that are sacred to my understanding of being an American, and something that I will never yield. Judge Hand said:
“Liberty lies in the hearts of men and women; when it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can even do much to help it. The spirit of Liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right; the spirit of Liberty is the spirit which seeks to understand the minds of other men and women; the spirit of Liberty is that which weighs their interests alongside its own without bias.”
So today, on this 241st anniversary of our independence when the rights of citizenship, the rights of suffrage, the rights of the freedom of the press and freedom of speech are under assault for the man occupying the highest office in the land I do not despair. I do not despair because the spirit of liberty still lives in my heart as it does many others who still believe in that sacred and revolutionary proposition that all men are created equal and endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, among them life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
In the darkness of 1852 Frederick Douglass said these words to people who at the time were refused citizenship and who were enslaved:
“I have said that the Declaration of Independence is the ring-bolt to the chain of your nation’s destiny; so, indeed, I regard it. The principles contained in that instrument are saving principles. Stand by those principles, be true to them on all occasions, in all places, against all foes, and at whatever cost.”
May we not forget those words on this day when the founding proposition of our country is under attack.
Cherish our independence and never stop believing in or fighting for liberty.