Americans are expected to govern themselves, but we are neglecting to provide our citizens with the foundations to uphold these responsibilities, our shared values as a nation, and how this country has evolved over time. Nations need to have symbols, creeds and stories that allow different individuals to imagine a shared sense of purpose and interest. Without them, it is hard to find common ground. People who do not understand why they have the beliefs that they have are often unable to have a constructive conversation about the difficult issues that democracies need to fix collectively.
The Fourth of July should be a day for Americans to celebrate the common values that spring from the origin of our nation. When the American patriots separated from Great Britain, they famously declared their reasons, noting that “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind” required an explicit statement.
These two concepts created the cornerstone of American liberty, and the justification for American democracy. They have powerfully shaped American values and identity — but it did not have to be that way.
Without an emphasis on popular sovereignty and equal rights, it would have been a very different declaration indeed. Without the creed of liberty, the document would not have been so significant, and would not have contained the transformational fuel that powers the aspirational values of our nation.
Despite the limitations of the right to vote for poor men, for women, the continued existence of slavery and limitations on the civil rights of African Americans in the moment of our independence, the powerful rhetoric of equality and consent had a transformative impact.
Poor men throughout the nation would use the language of equality and popular sovereignty to claim equal access to vote during the founding era. Equal rights language would bring down the monopoly on religious truth, long controlled by the state in the Eurocentric world, and guarantee a belief in the freedom of conscience of all people in the US.
Immigrants would use the Declaration to claim equal treatment and access to citizenship, and therefore representation. It would be used to justify the idea of the legitimacy of an opposition party against elected majorities, and it would be used to protect the rights of individuals in the Constitution, as well as the state constitutions, which came to define American citizenship.
Women would use the Declaration of Independence to demand equal laws and the right to vote. Unions would use it to organize labor against capital. The American people would use it to navigate between the charms of fascism and communism when our systems seemed to be failing. Abolitionists would use it to attack the institution of slavery and Fredrick Douglass and Martin Luther King, and many others, would use it to point out the hypocrisy of white citizenship in the face of continued black oppression. And we still use these principles to measure the freedom of other nations, whether or not we decide to shape our foreign policy to our values.
The founding generation did not make a perfect country. In many ways, they failed to live up to their powerful vision of liberty. Nevertheless, they gave us our founding aspirations and institutional inheritance that we still rely upon to solve our problems. We can be proud of it. It is a foundation that has been continuously built upon, but it can only last if we teach our history.
Washington’s challenge is still upon us as we struggle to live up to the high ideals of our nation. It is not the founders who are responsible for our failures to live up to the creed of this nation, we are free to shape our future. Our shared values of equality and popular consent still drive our frustrations with our imperfect society today, but these are our values and we should be proud to celebrate them.
So, on the Fourth of July, go ahead and have a cookout, shoot off some fireworks, raise a flag and salute the promise of America, and all those who have fought and lived for it. And be proud to recognize that we, the people, control the meaning of equality and popular rule in our future, which is our inheritance and our great trust.