This is part one of a two-part editorial. See the Friday, July 3 edition for part two.
Every July 4 for the past 244 years, we pause to celebrate what happened on this date in 1776.
This year, in particular, seems a good time to reflect on what it is we’re celebrating.
Technically, we’re not celebrating American independence, although we really are. The Continental Congress formally declared the 13 colonies independent from Great Britain on July 2.
That resolution — introduced by Richard Henry Lee of Virginia — read simply:
“Resolved, That these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States, that they are absolved from all allegiance to British crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved.”
That’s not particularly poetic, but it was practical and to the point. The next day, John Adams wrote his wife, Abigail: “The Second Day of July 1776, will be the most memorable Epocha, in the History of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival. It ought to be commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance by solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.”
Adams was wrong about many things — Alien and Sedition Acts, anyone? — and this was one of them. We don’t celebrate July 2. We celebrate July 4, because that’s when the Continental Congress adopted a resolution describing the philosophical reasoning behind what it had done two days before. That resolution was the Declaration of Independence. It’s the soaring words of Thomas Jefferson, not the legal ones of Richard Henry Lee, that still animate Americans.
Today, of all days, it’s worth looking at the ideals our founders were embracing — and how well we’ve lived up to them.
It’s the second sentence of the Declaration of Independence that we remember best: “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.”
By “all men,” did the founders really mean “all men” as in the general sense of “all mankind” or did they simply mean “men” in the specific sense of a single gender?
The Library of Congress declares on its website that “within the context of the times it is clear that ‘all men’ was a euphemism for ‘humanity.’”
By that standard, the nation created that July in 1776 has often fallen short of its founding ideals.
Our politics officially excluded half of that humanity for more years than we have included it. Not until 1920— a century ago this August —did our Constitution grant women the right to vote. It still does not officially guarantee women equal rights. Someday the U.S. Supreme Court will have to rule on whether the constitutional amendment that Virginia ratified earlier this year was dead or alive.