Why Celebrate the American Revolution?

The First in Series

By Nancy Spannaus

July 7, 2024 –Two hundred and forty-eight years ago, “our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” That was the way Abraham Lincoln described the founding of the United States of America in his address at Gettysburg in November 1863.

Why Celebrate the American Revolution?
John Trumbull’s painting of the presentation of the Declaration of Independence.

Like the vast majority of Americans raised in the period following World War II, I was taught to believe in and honor Lincoln’s view. In my case, decades of historical study have only deepened my belief, and my commitment to fulfilling that original dedication. Many others, for a variety of reasons, have taken the many obvious violations of that original statement of principle in the Declaration of Independence as a reason to dispute our country’s honorable origins – some to the point of almost wishing we had never broken from the British Empire.

Another large cohort of our citizens have continued to pledge loyalty to our Declaration, but have interpreted it in ways contrary to its spirit and principle. They adhere to a libertarian view that violates the foundation of our liberty, which relies on our cooperation as a people for the general welfare and rights of all. They seek freedom from government, rather than freedom to pursue the common good.

These shortcomings in understanding our founding principles represent the real crisis for our republic, in my view.  Thus, with this post, I am beginning a series of relatively short articles, to be posted every Sunday evening for the foreseeable future, on the topic of the principles and causes of the American Revolution. I begin with a serialization of the chapter on the Declaration from my book Defeating Slavery: Hamilton’s American System Showed the Way,  but there will be much more to follow. I urge you to follow along, and, if you wish, participate in the conversation with your comments.

Chapter 7: The Declaration of Independence: A Promissory Note

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. …

While the American revolutionaries’ policy on slavery was being debated far and wide, the issue came to one crucial decision point in June-July of 1776. For it is then that the Second Continental Congress determined to make official the separation from Great Britain, by composing the Declaration of Independence of the “united States of America.” That momentous declaration was to state to the world the principles upon which this new nation was to stand, and hopefully mobilize the support of other nations, as well as the American people, needed to win the ongoing war against the world’s greatest imperial power.

Why Celebrate the American Revolution?

Those principles appear in the very first paragraph of the Declaration, as quoted above. Contrary to the claims of both the Garrisonite abolitionists and the Confederacy later on, and to the ongoing practice of even many of the signers, those principles were enunciated for “all men,” in fact all human beings. They set forth the crucial idea around which the Revolution was to be organized.[1]

I would submit that the bulk of the remainder of the Declaration, in particular the listing of grievances against the King and Parliament, are important, but subsidiary aspects of that document. It is the principled idea in the opening paragraph which is fundamental and animates the struggle for more perfect unity and freedom in the nation which that Declaration created.

Abraham Lincoln put it this way in a speech in Springfield, Illinois in 1857, which he later quoted in his final debate with Stephen Douglas in Alton, Illinois on Oct. 15, 1858:

I think the authors of that notable instrument intended to include all men, but they did not mean to declare all men equal in all respects. They did not mean to say all men were equal in color, size, intellect, moral development, or social capacity. They defined with tolerable distinctness in what they did consider all men created equal – equal in certain inalienable rights, among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. This they said, and this they meant. They did not mean to assert the obvious untruth, that all were then actually enjoying that equality, or yet, that they were about to confer it immediately upon them. In fact, they had no power to confer such a boon. They meant simply to declare the right, so that the enforcement of it might follow as fast as circumstances should permit.

They meant to set up a standard maxim for free society which should be familiar to all: constantly looked to, constantly labored for, and even, though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated, and thereby constantly spreading and deepening its influence and augmenting the happiness and value of life to all people, of all colors, everywhere.[2]

Lincoln’s description here coheres perfectly with that of the 20th Century civil rights giant Dr. Martin Luther King, when King declared that the United States had given its black, mostly enslaved population a “promissory note.”[3] Tragically, that note was not fully paid off by the formal elimination of slavery in 1865, but remains in large part to be redeemed today. …

Next: The Debate going into the Declaration

[1] This issue was the overarching, principled theme of Abraham Lincoln’s debates with Stephen Douglas in 1858. I refer you particularly to the 7th debate, held in Alton, Illinois. The National Park Service’s Lincoln Home site has published the full transcript of all the Lincoln-Douglas debates.

[2] See transcript. 

[3] See Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech of August 28, 1963.

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