The following is an excerpt from “What we get wrong about the Fourth of July” by Kermit Roosevelt, David Berger Professor for the Administration of Justice at the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School, at The Boston Globe:
If we want to celebrate what we think of as this nation’s ideal of equality for all, then we should be doing so on the anniversary of the Gettysburg Address, not the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
For almost 250 years, we’ve celebrated July 4th as the birth of our nation — a nation, in Lincoln’s words, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. But our reading of the Declaration of Independence as putting forth the promise of universal equality is wrong, and our ideals have a very different source.
In 1776, the Declaration was understood to be about the right of a people to define and govern itself. Jefferson’s “all men are created equal” was a description of the hypothetical state of nature, a shorthand rejection of the divine right of kings. It led to the idea that governments should protect the rights of the people who formed them, but it was not understood to have any implications for how the government should treat people such as the enslaved.
The colonists obsessed about British regulations on immigration and trade and what they considered an excessive number of British officials present in the colonies. They ignored the injustices they inflicted on others. They rose up against figurative enslavement by the Crown while literally enslaving people in America. When the Declaration of Independence alluded to slavery, it was to condemn King George for encouraging enslaved people to rebel. When the Revolution brought freedom to enslaved people, it was only because the war afforded them an opportunity to escape their Patriot masters and join the British. The British issued multiple emancipation proclamations; after the war, the Patriots demanded the return of the formerly enslaved.
Our modern (mis)understanding of the Declaration of Independence emerged decades after the Revolution… .