As we celebrate this 4th of July holiday, it is an opportunity to reflect on the deepest meanings of the founding of America. Our country was born of more than just a rebel uprising. It was a revolution in political and moral thinking that remains unparalleled in history.
Our founders faced an extraordinary challenge at the onset of the American Revolution. They had to articulate for the world why it was necessary for Americans to violently separate from the British Empire. They also had to articulate the philosophical credo of the new American nation they were establishing. Rarely has a group of people tackled a more daunting intellectual and moral task.
The founders rose to the challenge in spectacular fashion. They turned the world on its head by declaring an abrupt end to the long historical subservience of people to their governments. They proclaimed instead the moral and philosophical basis of an entirely new concept – the sovereign individual. The world was forever changed on July 4th, 1776.
While the Declaration of American Independence includes many stirring and radical concepts, it contains one phrase that will stand out forever as a shining vision for all people everywhere.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident” was a string of simple words that shredded the entire sordid history of political philosophy. The phrase framed a revolutionary new view of existence that shocked the world. To explain, I will examine in detail these profound words that poured forth from Thomas Jefferson’s pen as he channeled the spirit of John Locke.
The first revolutionary word in the phrase is “We”. It refers to the gathered representatives of the people who were proclaiming separation from the British Empire. We the people were going to decide this matter, not the Kings, the Legislators, the Generals, nor the Bishops. We the people were not only revolting against King George, we were revolting against the very concept of inherited power. More broadly, we were revolting against the premise that had propped up all governments until then – that certain elites were somehow endowed with dominion over the rest of us, and that our role was to humbly submit. We were refusing to submit. We were expressing our intent to govern ourselves as sovereign individuals, without asking permission from any authority whatsoever. We were asserting our unalienable natural right to form a government of the people, by the people, and for the people. In doing so, we wrested control of our lives from aristocrats who had used common people as pawns since time immemorial. All revolutions before 1776 were acts of changing one set of tyrants for another, or one oppressing ideology for another. Never before had a people committed themselves to dispensing with all tyrants and ideologies.
The second revolutionary word in the phrase is “hold”. It declares that the American people grasped the principles in the Declaration deeply, and held them with a commitment that was unshakable, even in the face of dire risk and tumult. It was part of the new American culture and mind, acquired during decades of hardship, observation, and learning. We had suffered far too long from British colonial malfeasance. We had observed far too long the abusive tyranny of governments around the world. We had struggled mightily, with great personal effort and danger, to carve out a crude existence in a harsh new land. We had been inspired by the liberating spirit of the scholarly Enlightenment that was elevating the globe out of the Dark Ages. Our ancestors thought deeply about all of these things, to the point where the revolution became not just a change in leadership, it became the first instance of an entire people toppling the world’s predominant moral, philosophical, and political orthodoxies. The Americans came to “hold” the revolutionary principles in the Declaration with such passion that they literally risked their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor to bring the principles into existence during a war against the most powerful empire on Earth. From that cauldron, the unique national character called “American Exceptionalism” was born.
The third revolutionary word in the phrase is “truths”. We were no longer going to be mesmerized by elites who used the pixie dust of traditions, customs, mythologies, and ideologies dredged from the murky vestiges of history to justify their absurd claims of dominion over us. Instead, we expressed our intention to guide our revolutionary actions with facts, reason, and logic, all of which pointed to the primacy of individual sovereignty and self-government. All people are created equal. We are endowed with the unalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. To secure these rights, we institute governments that derive their powers only from our consent. If our governments become abusive or destructive, it is our right to alter or abolish them. Reduced to four words: equality, rights, consent, and revolution. These four truths are universal attributes of the common human condition that defined a radical new political perspective. America shed the self-serving indoctrination by its elitist overlords and ushered in the age of political reason, which included free minds, free markets, and free people.
The last revolutionary word in the phrase is “self-evident”. To live safely, collaboratively, and peacefully, we do not need to be indoctrinated by elites who dazzle us with obtuse philosophies or by aristocrats who awe us with their eminence and wealth. We do not need bureaucrats or gurus wielding dusty tomes of myths or dogmas to interpret reality for us, often in ways that benefit the elites to our disadvantage. Instead, the basis for our individual sovereignty is self-evident using our own senses and reason, and readily understood by all people regardless of education. As Jefferson pointed out, it is universally obvious that people are not born with saddles on their backs, nor are others born booted and spurred to ride them. Every man is an end in himself and not a means to the ends of others. The principles articulated in the Declaration are so simple and so consistent with a clear and objective view of human nature and morality that they resonated not only with 18th Century Americans, but with the huddled masses around the world who yearned to be free of their elitist oppressors.
Some will argue that despite these revolutionary ideas, America never achieved the perfection it aspired to, nor has it ever completely treated all people as coequals in this revolution.
Both arguments are correct. People are imperfect, and are prone to interpreting “truths” imperfectly. But wisdom grows over time if we keep our minds open and commit ourselves to finding truth. Our society is learning that equality must apply to all genders and to all races, or it does not truly apply to anyone.
For example, it is clear to us that America’s historical enslavement of blacks was a shocking violation of natural rights. It was an unmitigated evil that hypocritically contradicted the Declaration’s principles. It is shameful that it took America so long to begin reconciling its moral theory with its moral practice. We should have unlocked the chains of our slaves on July 4th, 1776. It is a disgrace that we did not.
Even though America’s founders had an almost unanimous aversion to the concept of slavery, many of them were corrupted by the convenience and family traditions of owning human chattel. Some genuinely worried about the prudence of suddenly emancipating hundreds of thousands of black people who were likely unprepared to be cast on their own into general society. They worried about the massive economic and social disruption that would come from such a sudden and chaotic shift. They were frightened that the accumulated racial hatred and cultural divisiveness would overwhelm the new nation and lead to civil strife. Some rationalized that slavery had existed throughout the world since the dawn of civilization, so emancipation was a monumental task beyond the scope of our initial revolution.
But those were all just excuses. If the founders were willing to risk their lives to end their own slavery to the British Empire, they should have been equally willing to risk the strife of a post-emancipation America to free their black brethren. The principles in the Declaration exposed slavery to world for the evil that it was in all of its guises, yet decisive action was too slow in coming. That does not condemn the principles of the Declaration, it condemns that part of the characters of the men of the times who were too weak to live up to the full ideals of the principles.
While the Declaration did not end the enslavement of blacks, it did unleash unstoppable spiritual, philosophical, and social momentum that eventually did. It marked a moral awakening that made abolition of slavery a political inevitability, because it established an immutable vision against which to judge the vileness of the institution. Emancipation laws were passed in several states shortly after the American Revolution. By 1798, every state in the Union had outlawed the slave trade. By 1804, every northern state had committed itself to emancipating its slaves. By 1810, 100,000 slaves had been emancipated in America. In 1865, the 13th Amendment to the Constitution abolished slavery forever.
It took too long to achieve universal emancipation, and there were too many imperfect steps along the way. The effects of our failures in this regard still haunt us today. But we don’t need to “change the system” to fix the issues that remain today. We need to hold ourselves and all of our institutions fully accountable to apply the principles of the Declaration to everyone in our society. All people are created equal. All people are endowed with the unalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
The Declaration fundamentally changed a world that, for the common man for thousands of years, was “nasty, brutish, and short”, quoting Thomas Hobbes. The principles in the Declaration created a new political environment where the common man could live a life that was relatively long, prosperous, free, and secure. America showed the world a path out of perpetual destitution toward hope and happiness for all.
W. Cleon Skousen referred to our country’s founding as the “5,000 Year Leap”, which is a brilliant assessment of the impact of the revolutionary truths that poured forth from our founding documents. On July 4th, 1776, the publication of the Declaration of American Independence bridged the world from a barbaric past to a rational future. It was the most transformative event in the political history of the world.
If we courageously hold the truths in the Declaration as self-evident, if we fully commit ourselves to including all people as coequals in its vision, we will achieve the grandest of all human hopes — a more perfect union of free, sovereign, and collaborative people.
(Written by James Keena, author of the gripping new novel “2084: American Apocalypse”, available on Amazon. Explore more at jameskeena.com.)