On July 4, 1776, the Declaration of Independence marked the origin of a common destiny for a new country. Today, the declaration remains a reference for those who want to make America a just and inclusive country. Paradoxically, it is also an obstacle to achieving that goal.
The declaration famously affirmed as “self-evident” truths that “all men are created equal” and that freedom and the pursuit of happiness are inalienable rights. The clarity and forcefulness of these statements are undeniable. They became the foundation of an exceptional nation, blessed in its creation by democratic ideals rather than ancestral ties to a territory. It is a radical and extraordinarily attractive idea: a nation of emigrants embracing all who join an ideal of freedom and equality.
There are certainly good reasons to celebrate the declaration. This year, however, the Fourth of July fireworks will ring hollow to many. Awakened by a groundswell of protests since the killing of George Floyd, the country has recognized an entrenched systemic racism.
This latest retrospection has put in the spotlight our nation’s painful difficulty honoring the pronouncements of the declaration. We should wonder: How is it possible to live with slavery for almost 90 years after having solemnly declared that all men are created equal? How is it possible that in 1965, 100 years after slavery was abolished, interracial marriage was still a crime in many states?
The historical context of the declaration helps us to understand these paradoxes, shedding light on what the Founding Fathers meant, beyond what they actually wrote. Many of its authors were slave owners, and for them, Black men — being their property — could not be their equal. Native Americans are only mentioned in the declaration as “Indians savages” and were also excluded from the rights described in it.
The declaration set out great aspirations for the new nation, but it also implicitly pointed out who had the right to claim it as their own: the small circle of white Protestant landowners to which its authors belonged. Black and Indigenous populations were left out. This racist hypocrisy has been called America’s original sin, a curse that continues to hinder its progress.
As time went by, the descendants of the Founding Fathers gradually expanded the circle, granting rights to other groups, not just African Americans and American Indians. In that process, Jews, Catholics, Asian Americans and Hispanics have all suffered discrimination. In fact, an essential aspect of American history is the arduous struggle to expand that small initial circle. To do so, minorities have precisely invoked the text of the declaration to justify their rights.
The racist rhetoric that propelled Donald Trump to the presidency was based on inciting fears similar to those that sparked other racist outbursts in our history — for example, in the 1920s when the country embraced the ideas of the eugenics movement. These ideas justified racism, established white supremacism and produced overtly racist policies.
The objective was to appease the fear of what President Theodore Roosevelt called racial suicide, that is, the diminishing dominance of the race of the Founding Fathers, considered the master race.
These visceral fears have not disappeared. Trump, for example, has successfully presented himself as the defender of the essence of the country against enemies or invaders such as Mexicans, Chinese and Muslims.
Despite its original sin and reactionary interpretations, the Declaration of Independence remains a source of hope for justice because of the intrinsic power of words. In a sermon on July 4, 1965, after reciting the famous second paragraph of the declaration, Martin Luther King Jr. declared: “This is a dream. A great dream … Never before in the history of the world has a sociopolitical document expressed in such profound, eloquent and unequivocal language the dignity and worth of the human personality.”
A few years later, King was assassinated, but the words that inspired him cannot be silenced. Indeed, in this tumultuous time, those words must be celebrated.
Juan Miró is the David Bruton, Jr. Centennial Professor in Urban Studies at The University of Texas at Austin.