We, therefore, the representatives of the United States of America, in General Congress, assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the name, and by the authority of the good people of these colonies, solemnly publish and declare, that these united colonies are, and of right ought to be free and independent states; that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the state of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as free and independent states, they have full power to levy war, conclude peace, contract alliances, establish commerce, and to do all other acts and things which independent states may of right do. And for the support of this declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor.
I get a little teary-eyed reading such words. It reminds me of the time I visited the Jefferson Memorial. This is one of the inscriptions:
I am certainly not an advocate for frequent changes in laws and constitutions. But laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered and manners and opinions change, with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.
Thomas Jefferson wrote that in 1816, 40 years after he penned the Declaration of Independence. Can’t help wondering where the leaders of his caliber are today. Probably running software companies. Interesting that he imagines his ancestors as barbarians and his own age civilized. Back then it was thought that women needn’t sully themselves in the muck of power and politics. But as long as they went along with that idea, their fates were hostage to the political and the powerful.
Back then the holders of slaves imagined they were doing their bonded people a favor by plucking them from the savage jungles and plains of Africa and chaining them to civilized Southern cotton fields. Jefferson knew this but he had only so many Revolutions in him. From another inscription:
God who gave us life gave us liberty. Can the liberties of a nation be secure when we have removed a conviction that these liberties are the gift of God? Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, that his justice cannot sleep forever. Commerce between master and slave is despotism. Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than these people are to be free. Establish the law for educating the common people. This it is the business of the state to effect and on a general plan.
Jefferson saw the future, he just couldn’t live long enough to see it happen. This is my favorite inscription from the memorial:
I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.
Democracy may be an idea, but tyranny is real. Just ask anybody living in a dictatorship.
Jefferson helped create the idea of a free country but America was never truly free till it granted women the right to vote and broke down the Jim Crow edifice that guaranteed second-class citizenship for blacks in the South.
My grandparents were born before America’s Constitution was amended to guarantee women the right to vote. In the year I was born, 1961, blacks in the South were still living without the freedoms whites enjoyed everywhere. That makes tyranny real for me, especially knowing that it happened in my own country.
Thomas Jefferson personified the contradictions of the United States of America. He was all about liberty for rich white guys and he helped perpetuate the monstrous crime of slavery. And yet he helped create a society that would one day free the slaves.
Winston Churhcill once said Americans can be trusted to do the right thing only after all other options have been tried first. That’s the thing about us. We keep trying.