No document in United States history, excepting perhaps the Constitution, is more revered than the Declaration of Independence. Indeed, most Americans can recite (if not word for word) its most inspiring lines, “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.” But today’s reverence for the Declaration, especially this weekend as we celebrate Independence Day, often overlooks the unique characteristics of the document that have made it relevant to every generation of Americans after 1776.
Most Americans in 2016 would be surprised to learn that in 1776 few, if any, Americans cared much about the beautiful and uplifting words from the Declaration about equality and “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” They understood the document for what it was: a practical and detailed political statement and not a soaring proclamation universal equality and human rights. As a consequence, they read the opening section to the Declaration as little more than a flowery introduction to the far more important portion that followed: the list of grievances against King George III that justified declaring independence and fighting a war to secure it. This section took up about two-thirds of the Declaration and included more than two-dozen complaints directed specifically against the King, including:
He has refused his assent to laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.
He has affected to render the military independent of and superior to the civil power.
He has plundered our seas, ravaged our coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.
So for Americans in 1776, the Declaration of Independence was inspirational only in so far as it made the case to the world for breaking with the Mother Country and defending that decision with arms. It was later generations of Americans, long after the Revolutionary War’s successful conclusion, who flipped the focus on the Declaration from the list of grievances against George III, to Thomas Jefferson’s vivid articulation of the ideals of universal equality and human rights.
This process of transforming the significance of the Declaration began in the 1790s, two decades after the document was issued on July 4, 1776. The Federalist Party, led by men like John Adams and Alexander Hamilton, dominated politics in this decade. They were opposed by the Jeffersonian Republicans, a group who presented themselves as the defenders of the “Spirit of 1776” and the American Revolution against the Federalists whom they viewed as elitist, pro-British, and even pro-monarchy.
As a result, Republicans in the 1790s began reading the Declaration of Independence at July 4th celebrations and quoting it in speeches. They also took to celebrating the Declaration’s author and the leader of their party, Thomas Jefferson. In so doing, they emphasized the Declaration – especially the first third of it – as a Founding document that condemned monarchy and privilege, and celebrated liberty and equality.
So when Jefferson and the Republicans came to power in 1801, they saw to it that the Declaration of Independence became firmly enshrined as the nation’s great founding document. With each passing year, the reputation of and reverence for the Declaration grew.
But so too did the popular understanding of what it declared in those opening paragraphs. Jefferson, who held more than 200 persons as slaves at his home in Monticello, certainly did not have African Americans in mind when he wrote “all men are created equal.” Nor was he thinking of women in this formulation. But by the 1830s and 1840s, a new generation of Americans had begun to apply a vastly more expansive interpretation to Jefferson’s words.
Women’s rights activists at the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848, for example, created the “Declaration of Sentiments” using the Declaration of Independence as a template. Its opening lines read: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men and women are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights…” Around the same time, abolitionists began to condemn slavery as a violation of the sacred principles of liberty and equality articulated in the Declaration. In 1854, for example, abolitionists held a July 4 rally to protest the Fugitive Slave Act. When it was his turn to speak, abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison read the Declaration of Independence and burned a copy of the hated law.
In the coming decades, virtually every rights movement, including those led by workers, farmers, suffragists, pacifists, religious minorities, and gays, invoked the Declaration’s equality and liberty ideals to justify their claims.
And Jefferson did two other things in crafting the Declaration that keep it alive as a document relevant to succeeding generations, including ours. Both are found in the single line, “that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Notice Jefferson’s inclusion of the word “among.” It’s so subtle, one can easily miss it, but that one word has enormous implications: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are essential natural rights, but they are not the only ones. They are three among many. That one word left open the possibility that later generations of Americans could discover and secure additional rights—say, the right to vote, to an education, to marry the person of your choice, regardless of their gender or race, and so on.
Jefferson did the same thing with the last word in this line – “Happiness.” Philosopher John Locke had made famous his assertion that the purpose of government was to protect life, liberty, and property (or estate, to use his wording). But for Jefferson, “property” was too narrow. “Happiness,” on the other hand, was broad, limitless, and open to all manner of interpretation. Jefferson left open the possibility that future generations of Americans could define the right to happiness as they understood it, just as he suggested that there were many more rights beyond life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
This is why the Declaration of Independence still matters, why it’s a document for the ages and not just 1776. Although Jefferson did not necessarily have this goal in mind back in 1776, he nonetheless enshrined the radical idea that all are born equal and that all are entitled to what today we call human rights. Since that time, it’s been left to succeeding generations of Americans, and the democratic process, to define, secure, and protect those rights. That’s a tradition worth remembering this Independence Day weekend.
Edward T. O’Donnell is an associate professor of history at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, MA and the author of Henry George and the Crisis of Inequality: Progress and Poverty in the Gilded Age (Columbia University Press). He also hosts a history podcast, In The Past Lane, and tweets @InThePastLane.