Early on, we are taught that the Fourth of July, our most important national holiday, commemorates the day in 1776 that the United States declared its independence from Great Britain.
While Americans annually celebrate the creation of our nation, we also celebrate the human rights so boldly stated in the preamble to the Declaration of Independence:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Those combined 35 words may be the most powerful and revolutionary words ever written in the English language.
The notions of equality and inalienable rights declared in Thomas Jefferson’s preamble were, and in many ways still are, considered radical ideas. Putting them into practice has been a challenge throughout American history.
At our country’s founding, it was only white men of property who were considered equal and who enjoyed any political rights. Most black Americans were enslaved, enjoying no liberty, let alone the pursuit of happiness.
On July 5, 1852, Frederick Douglass, the most important anti-slavery leader of the 19th century and a former slave himself, gave an excoriating speech titled “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”
Douglass denounced Americans’ hypocrisy in proudly celebrating the country’s claim to democracy and equality while enslaving other human beings.
Yet, for more than 200 years, the Declaration of Independence has been used as a touchstone and powerful tool for expanding liberty and political rights to more and more people. In speeches and writings, Douglass and other abolitionists implored the nation to live up to the promise of the Declaration by ending slavery.
In the 1850s, Abraham Lincoln increasingly invoked the Declaration of Independence in speaking out against the extension of slavery into the territories. Even more than the Constitution, it was his guiding light.
On the eve of becoming president in 1861, Lincoln said he had “never had a feeling politically that did not spring from the sentiments embodied in the Declaration of Independence ... which gave liberty, not alone to the people of this country, but, I hope, to the world, for all future time.”
The Declaration was also essential to the women’s suffrage movement. The 1848 Women’s Rights Convention at Seneca Falls, N.Y., based its Declaration of Rights and Sentiments on the Declaration of Independence, stating, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men and women are created equal.”
The American civil rights movement of the 20th century looked to the promise of the Declaration of Independence to champion full equality regardless of race. At the 1963 March on Washington, Martin Luther King Jr. famously invoked the Declaration in words familiar to most of us: “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’”
While the United States is unequalled in military and economic power, our greatest and most enduring power lies in the Declaration of Independence.
It continues to inspire Americans and people around the globe in the pursuit of equality and liberty for all.