“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.”
We have heard these words all our lives. But can we still hear the dynamite in them? According to tradition, when the British under Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown, their musicians played “The World Turned Upside Down.” The American victory over Britain was more than a military victory; it changed everything.
The world in those days operated on the basis of utter inequality. The self-evident truths of the Declaration of Independence contradicted the entire experience of mankind. Whether the ruler was a king who claimed to rule by divine right or an emperor who claimed the mandate of Heaven, it was everywhere the same. Because the Founders’ idea of government by, for, and of the people is so deeply engrained in our imaginations, it is difficult for us to conceive of human life as it then was.
America’s truly incredible social and political success put this older world on the road to extinction. Foreign observers went from confidently predicting that America would fail to living through the collapse of their own regimes, made illegitimate by America’s shining example. Kings and emperors are gone now or reduced to mere ceremonial figures. Today, only peculiar and backward places, like Saudi Arabia, operate according to something like the old way of governance, and everyone knows that this anomaly will last only as long as the Saudi royals can continue to bribe their subjects.
Make no mistake, the Founders understood America’s significance for all humankind. They knew that they had put the world on the path to turning right-side up at last. Here is how Thomas Jefferson put it, near the end of his life:
“All eyes are open to or opening to…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.”
You may be familiar with these words, too, but have you noticed how that “by the grace of God” works here? People everywhere had been operating according to the belief that God had put saddles on their backs and rulers in the saddle. It was simply accepted as the way of things. Jefferson was declaring the end of all that. The old idea of hereditary monarchs backed by an official state religion was over.
You may have noticed that the Declaration keeps God in the picture, but in a wholly different way. The Creator, it says, creates us as equals. Equal how? We are obviously not equal in our gifts and talents; we are each as unique in our capacities as we are uniquely recognizable to one another. The plain meaning of the Declaration is this: We are endowed by our Creator with unalienable rights, rights that are inherent and essential elements of our nature as human beings. Those rights belong to us equally. There are none born with the right to rule and none born with only the right to be ruled.
It was the work of ages of human striving to arrive at the understanding of equality contained in the Declaration, and it took the brilliance and courage and determination of America’s real greatest generation — the Founders’ generation — to make that understanding the foundation of America’s political and social order. As my friend Chris Flannery has written:
That men throughout most of history (and throughout most of the world still today) tyrannized one another in an infinite variety of ways was not proof that human beings do not possess equal rights by nature — rather, it was proof of how rare and difficult a thing it is to secure them.
Even today, much of mankind is not fortunate enough to live in a country where those equal rights we humans possess by nature are observed and respected. Yet every person who incorporates the Founders’ vision brings us closer to the time when equal rights can be secured for all.
That we live in the country dedicated from its very birth to securing equal rights for all citizens is the precious gift of the Founders — one we celebrate each year on the Fourth of July.