The Noble Ideal in America’s Declaration

All men are created equal.
 

It is one of the most powerful sentences penned in human history:

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.

It articulates a revolutionary idea. That all men are created equal. That no man is born to rule over another man. That a man’s rights do not come from other men, but from God. That any government trampling on those God-given rights is illegitimate. That no man can deprive another man of those rights, because he is accountable to that man’s Creator.

It seems all we hear about America’s founding these days was that it was wrought by slaveowners. The truth is, the Declaration of Independence—signed by the Continental Congress in Philadelphia 243 years ago tomorrow—enabled this country to eliminate slavery, and to become the freest, most inclusive, greatest land of prosperity and opportunity for all its people, ever.

Just days before his death on July 4, 1826, Thomas Jefferson said that the United States had been founded on “the palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God.”

No nation had ever been founded on this idea. Masses of populations throughout history had never experienced it. Until this nation.

Every American should be inspired by this noble history.

Where did this radical idea come from? That all men are created equal? That all men are endowed by their Creator with rights to life, freedom and opportunity—rights that no man can take away?

The Source

Here is how President Calvin Coolidge answered that question during a speech on July 4, 1926, the 150th anniversary of the declaration: “In its main features the Declaration of Independence is a great spiritual document. It is a declaration not of material but of spiritual conceptions. Equality, liberty … the rights of man—these are not elements which we can see and touch. They are ideals. They have their source and their roots in the religious convictions. … Our forefathers came to certain conclusions and decided upon certain courses of action which have been a great blessing to the world. … They were intent upon religious worship. … While scantily provided with other literature, there was a wide acquaintance with the Scriptures. … They were a people who came under the influence of a great spiritual development and acquired a great moral power. No other theory is adequate to explain or comprehend the Declaration of Independence. It is the product of the spiritual insight of the people.”

What led President Coolidge to this conclusion? Look at one example. Jesus Christ made a statement summarizing much of the Bible: “[A]ll things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets” (Matthew 7:12). A man who is not treating another man as his equal—a fellow man made in God’s image, with God-given rights—is not treating that man as he himself would be treated. Oppressing another man is breaking God’s law.

God commands human beings to treat every man, woman and child with respect and justice. This is taught throughout the Bible, Old Testament and New. “As we have therefore opportunity, let us do good to all men. … [T]he servant of the Lord must … be gentle unto all men. … Follow peace with all men. … Honour all men” (Galatians 6:10; 2 Timothy 2:24; Hebrews 12:14; 1 Peter 2:17). Repeatedly God commands us to show special kindness to the needy, the sick, the afflicted, the downtrodden, the poor, the stranger, the fatherless, the widow, the blind, the deaf, the lame—as He does.

The Sin

Even at the time of the founding—as much as people want to dismiss all founders as racists and slaveholders—many of those men never had slaves, and worked ardently to end what had been, throughout history, common practice. Though the Constitution originally accommodated slavery, it intentionally did not mention it by name. The founders wanted the nation’s founding document to be timeless, and for its wording to endure well after abolition.

George Washington said, “There is not a man living who wishes more sincerely than I do, to see a plan adopted for the abolition of it.” John Adams said, “I have, through my whole life, held the practice of slavery in such abhorrence.” James Madison said, “We have seen the mere distinction of color made in the most enlightened period of time, a ground of the most oppressive dominion ever exercised by man over man.” John Jay said, “The United States are far from being irreproachable in this respect. It undoubtedly is very inconsistent with their declarations on the subject of human rights to permit a single slave to be found within their jurisdiction ….”

Many of the founders knew this type of slavery was a sin, because they knew their Bibles. They knew verses like Jeremiah 22:13: “Woe unto him that buildeth his house by unrighteousness, and his chambers by wrong; that useth his neighbour’s service without wages, and giveth him not for his work.” This is a profound warning. Certainly slavery is a curse to the slave, the one being oppressed. But Jeremiah warns of woe to the oppressor—because God will avenge!

What a prophetic statement. How this nation has suffered because of this sin.

It seems Jefferson knew of this when he wrote in 1784, “[C]an the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with His wrath? Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that His justice cannot sleep forever; that considering numbers, nature and natural means only, a revolution of the wheel of fortune, an exchange of situation is among possible events; that it may become probable by supernatural interference! The Almighty has no attribute which can take side with us in such a contest.” That is how Thomas Jefferson felt about slavery. He owned slaves—but he knew and taught that it was wrong, and feared it would bring God’s judgment!

Many people who do not know their Bibles say that “God condoned slavery.” It is true that God regulated slavery—and allowed temporary slavery as a means of recovering from poverty. But He never condoned the kind of slavery that happened in this country. He commanded the death penalty for stealing a man. He never condones abuse and tyranny—man ruling over man unjustly.

Consider more scriptures: “Masters, give unto your servants that which is just and equal; knowing that ye also have a Master in heaven. … Behold, the hire of the labourers who have reaped down your fields, which is of you kept back by fraud, crieth: and the cries of them which have reaped are entered into the ears of the Lord of sabaoth” (Colossians 4:1; James 5:4). These and many other Bible passages show that God hears the cries of the slave, the captive working without pay. Lord of Sabaoth refers to the Lord of the armies of Israel! God has armies, saddled up, ready for warfare, who will bring justice!

For 6,000 years God has allowed man to prove that no race should rule the world. The human race is unfit. Only God can rule the world with real justice—and He will do so!

The Emancipation

After the founding generation, some came along later and defended slavery as good, even proper in God’s sight. (No founder believed that.) So sadly, the problem intensified. Abraham Lincoln tried to contain it, to put it on the course of eventual extinction, as the founders did. He treated it like the evil it was.

And what did he keep going back to? “All men are created equal.”

Some argued that this statement did not apply to blacks. Lincoln vehemently disagreed. All men means all men, he said. That is what this nation was founded on! Southern states whose economies and way of life depended on agriculture and slavery felt threatened. They rebelled.

As a military measure during the Civil War, Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation—a radical move, but temporary and incomplete. Nevertheless, it explicitly made ending slavery a goal of the war. This enraged many, but it led to the freeing of more than 3 million people. Then, Lincoln convinced Congress to pass the 13th Amendment, which applied to all states throughout the country.

After four nightmare years of Civil War that killed 700,000 to 900,000 people, he famously quoted Matthew 18:7 in his Second Inaugural address in March 1865: “Woe unto the world because of offences! for it must needs be that offences come; but woe to that man by whom the offence cometh!” What if slavery was an offense, Lincoln said—and God has given us “this terrible war, as the woe due to those by whom the offense came.”

“Fondly do we hope—fervently do we pray—that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away,” he said. “Yet if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondman’s 250 years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said 3,000 years ago, so still it must be said, ‘The judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether.’”

Slavery was a great sin—and this nation went through hell to get rid of it. How perverse that more and more Americans are coming to view it as practically the dominant theme of America’s founding, and prominent Democratic presidential candidates are advocating reparations to the descendants of slaves.

Thankfully, that sin does not define this nation. In America’s case, it is much fairer to say the nation’s story is one of overcoming this sin, and working to live up to the ideal articulated in its Declaration of Independence.

There is racism in America, just as there has been and is in all nations throughout history. But in no other nation do so many different peoples peacefully coexist. No other country is so accepting of people of all stripes as fellow citizens. In Germany, a third-generation German of Turkish descent is still considered a Turk. In America, if you immigrate from Turkey—or Nigeria or China or anywhere else—you are an American.

Every American should be inspired by what the founders did, and by what the nation has done to realize the ideal they championed. This Fourth of July, remember the beautiful, revolutionary ideal that shot like a lightning bolt into the annals of the nations:

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.