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The American Declaration of Independence signaled the beginning of a new era. Revered as one of the most important documents in the history of the United States, the Declaration of Independence freed American colonists from British rule and paved the way for an official expression of self-governance. With isolated incidents of rebellion, the American Revolutionary War began and continued into the early 1780’s, even after the signing of the Declaration itself. Surprisingly, even after the initial battles of the Revolutionary War, few colonists truly desired complete independence from Great Britain, and those who did were considered extremely radical by public opinion. In the midst of the Revolutionary War, the Declaration of Independence was drafted by Thomas Jefferson and, contrary to popular belief, was signed into effect on August 2, 1776. Likely the most quoted portion of the document, the Preamble is as follows:
“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.”
As a result of these monumental days in national history, Americans across the country now celebrate the Fourth of July with fireworks, barbecue, and reunions. However, in a country now, and historically, plagued with civil unrest and discord, one question remains unaddressed: what exactly are Americans celebrating?
Arguably, the Declaration of Independence represents the true interests of America to a tee. With exclusive and calculated language, the document intentionally only protects citizens who resemble the Founders’ ideal image–white, cis-gendered, and male. This blatant exclusion of a vast majority of the American population is debilitating, especially considering that the country has sustained, if not expanded upon, such bigotry throughout the last three centuries. Likely the most notable exclusion, the Declaration of Independence failed to condemn slavery at a time of colossal abuse and injustice against America’s Black communities. Only six years after the initial declaration that “all men are created equal,” Jefferson outlined his personal reasons for continuing slavery in the “free” world:
“The first difference which strikes us is that of colour…They have less hair on the face and body. They secrete less by the kidneys, and more by the glands, which gives them a strong and disagreeable odour…in reason much inferior, as I think one could scarcely be found capable of tracing and comprehending the investigations of Euclid; and that in imagination they are dull, tasteless, and anomalous…”
Although not incredibly shocking coming from a man who enslaved over 600 people throughout the course of his life, Jefferson’s words represent popular opinions in the 18th century, despite their obvious lack of scientific or moral support. The sheer commonality of such statements indicate that Black men and women were not viewed as “men” under the Declaration of Independence and, therefore, were never intended to be protected under the verbiage of its patriotic, yet unrealistic, promises. In a renowned 1982 speech, Frederick Douglass addressed the obvious lack of parallels among nationwide Fourth of July celebrations. The speech explored the constitutional and moral arguments against the continued existence of slavery within the newly formed Republic. Most notably, Douglass contended that any positive statements about American liberty, citizenship, or freedom were an insult to the enslaved population of the region considering their intentional deprivation of such values by the American populous. An abolitionist, Douglass continued to stress the view that slaves and free Americans were inherently equal and deserved the same liberties that the Founding Fathers demanded from Great Britain.
In addition to the exclusion of enslaved Americans, the Declaration of Independence failed to acknowledge women as well. Less than four months before ratification, Abigail Adams urged her husband, future President John Adams, to “Remember the Ladies” when discussing the legal premises behind the new Republic. John Adams’s response was tone-deaf and unsympathetic as he continued to dismiss his wife’s objections and began his infamous response with “we have only the name of masters, and rather give up this, which would completely subject us to the despotism of the petticoat…”
The Founding Fathers also failed to acknowledge or account for the great injustices pushed upon Native Americans, especially during the initial colonization of the region. Constitutional experts hypothesize that in the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson intentionally replaced “property,” the true underlying meaning of the text, with “happiness” as a way to ensure that specific marginalized groups could not assert their rights in any court of law. Commonly referred to as “Indian Savages” by the admired Founding Fathers, Native Americans were, and continue to be, debased and stripped of their natural rights.
Although the Fourth of July does celebrate American ideals, which ones the day truly idolizes is commonly misrepresented due to the dominance of the white patriarchy. Instead of freedom, liberty, and happiness, the Fourth of July undoubtedly embodies the oppression, exclusion, and degradation of minority groups throughout the United States. Moving forward, it is imperative that America consider what limitations it wants to place on the influence of the questionable founders of this nation. In a year of climactic shifts and cultural paradigms, the United States must move forward to disregard and learn from America’s oppressive past as a means to create a vibrant and inclusive future. Nonetheless, before such change can occur, acknowledgement must come first; the country as a whole must acknowledge and make amends for its biased and abusive culture. By only protecting white men, the Declaration of Independence fails, even today, to celebrate the contributions of Black men and women, women in general, LGBTQ+ members, immigrants, minorities, the impoverished, and so many other vital classes of American citizens. Ultimately, while it is undisputed that the country would look different if this revolutionary document had been written by America’s minorities, the Declaration of Independence does not have to continue to shape the path of the United States of America–it can change.
Let freedom finally ring when all people are truly created equal.