Columnist Don Robinson: Nation’s commitment to equality continues

  • Now, 242 years later, we are engaged in a fight for the soul of this nation. It pits those who are determined to keep a commitment to equality at the center of our national purpose against those who wish to substitute a doctrine of unfettered individual liberty.

Tuesday, July 03, 2018

Twelve score and two years ago, our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now, 242 years later, we are engaged in a fight for the soul of this nation. It pits those who are determined to keep a commitment to equality at the center of our national purpose against those who wish to substitute a doctrine of unfettered individual liberty.

Sometimes this modern challenge to the central teaching of the Declaration of Independence insists that our nation is not a democracy.  Ours is a constitutional republic, they say, not a democracy.

The champions of this view make much of the fact that the word “democracy” does not appear in the Constitution.  They conveniently ignore the first three words of the Constitution.  It is “We the people” who ordained this government. We are the principal and ongoing source of its purpose and the guardians of its legitimacy.

But let us get back to the event we celebrate today: the founders’ decision to separate from Great Britain and establish in America a new nation based on the notion of equality.

Thomas Jefferson usually gets the credit for “writing” the Declaration of Independence.  He was certainly foremost among those who put its enduring principles into unforgettable language, a tremendous achievement. But he was assuredly not the author of those ideas. John Adams once remarked that Jefferson, in drafting the document, had “plagiarized the atmosphere.”

An excellent place to start, if we wish to understand our founding document, is to read a short but powerful book published in 2014 by Danielle Allen, entitled “Our Declaration.” Note the carefully chosen words of her title.

Allen leads us through “slow reading” of the text of the Declaration. She asks us to linger over and savor phrases, which are so familiar that we have a hard time remembering how earth-shattering they are.

Take, for example, the opening line: “When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people ...”  Wait! What can that mean? When and how did Americans become “one people”?

Then, all of a sudden, the text declares that Americans intend to “assume among the Powers of the Earth, the separate and equal Station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them ...” What does it mean to say that we are entitled to assume an equal stature with Great Britain among the nations of the earth? In military might? In wealth? In the esteem of other nations?

We come next to the heart of the matter: the Declaration’s insistence on the “self-evident truth” that “all men are created equal.” What can it possibly mean to assert that all people are “created equal”? Am I equal to LeBron James in physical strength? No one is equal to Stephen Hawking in intelligence. That’s just silly talk. It’s obviously not true at all, much less self-evident.

The argument proceeds without missing a beat. We are equal, it says, in being endowed by our creator (not by any government) with certain unalienable rights. Governments are instituted to protect these rights; they derive their just powers from the consent of the people. When those who govern us fail to respect these rights, we are entitled to alter or abolish the government and institute a new one more likely to provide for our safety and happiness.

If we are prudent, we won’t do this for light or transient reasons. Revolutions are hard and dangerous. But when we believe ourselves to be in the grip of tyranny, it is our right, indeed our duty, to rebel and undertake the perilous work of building a new system of government.

Whoa! It is time to catch our breath. Let’s see where this string of notions has carried us.

We began by noting the Declaration’s assertion that all people are, in some fundamental and relevant way, equal. How so?

The clauses that follow make this crucial point clear. We are equal in deciding whether our system of government is serving our needs. That is where we are equal.

Further, the Declaration, our national birthright, rests on the conviction that we are fully capable of this work, and that no one can do it for us. This work is unalienable. We cannot delegate it, and no one can take it from us.

Today we celebrate the 242nd anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.

In the meantime, we have fought a War Between the States, one of the deadliest wars in human history. President Lincoln took the nation to war believing that its purpose was to preserve the Union. By the time it ended four terrible years later, Lincoln’s thinking had evolved. He had come to see that the determination of the Confederate states to preserve and extend slavery, coupled with the Union’s refusal to accept that policy, were the cause of the conflict, and that it would not end, could not end, until a trial of arms resulted in victory for one side or the other.

In other words, the cause of the Civil War was a difference over the meaning — the moral argument — of the Declaration of Independence.  The Union side’s victory meant that the nation’s commitment to equality would continue, with all its challenges.

A friend recently called my attention to a letter written in 1929 by Mahatma Gandhi to W. E. B. DuBois. It is preserved at the W. E. B. DuBois Center at the University of Massachusetts.  It reads:

”Let not the 12 million Negroes be ashamed of the fact that they are the grandchildren of slaves.  There is no dishonour in being slaves. There is dishonour in being slave-owners. But let us not think of honour or dishonour in connection with the past. Let us realise that the future is with those who would be truthful, pure and loving. For, as the old wise men have said, truth ever is, untruth never was. Love alone binds, and truth and love accrue only to the truly humble.”

These words echo the events we celebrate today. Gandhi’s letter demonstrates their universal reach and expresses their deepest meaning.

Don Robinson writes a monthly column on American politics and culture for the Daily Hampshire Gazette, normally published on the fourth Thursday of each month.  He taught government and American studies at Smith College from 1966 until 2014. His book, “Slavery in the Structure of American Politics, 1765 to 1820,” won the Anisfield-Wolf Award in 1972. He can be reached at drobinso@smith.edu.