We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
In this single, beautifully composed sentence, America’s Declaration of Independence captures the essence of a then radical proposition that is today largely, but not universally, seen as a simple truth.
Simple truths, however, often have difficult implications. Despite being “self-evident,” one can, and actually should, question why less than a decade later as the new nation’s Constitution was being drafted, “all men” failed to include women and how the continuation of the institution of slavery could be reconciled with the words “created equal.” Equality for all could be conceived in the late 18th century, but it could not be realized.
Fourscore and seven 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. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived, and so dedicated, can long endure.
Lincoln, as he delivered these words on the battlefield in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, demonstrated that he understood with perfect clarity not only the essence of the country’s founding vision, but also how deeply it confronts human nature’s desire for individual control and social stature. Jefferson’s idealism resonates with our best inclinations, but its implications challenge the darker parts of our being. Lincoln distilled the essential question of the Union’s ability to endure down to simple question of whether the people of any nation could actually come to see and treat each other as equals?
That challenge continues to this day and Lincoln’s question remains as relevant today as it was in 1863.
The last enslaved people in the United States saw their compelled servitude end in 1865 and the confirmation of equality under the Constitution with the ratification of the 14th Amendment in 1868. Women gained the right to vote in 1920 after a decades-long struggle.
Progress can clearly take its time.
The life experience of most black Americans today remains one of various and multiple forms of inequity. Women continue to have legitimate concerns about fair and equitable treatment.
So, progress is not only slow, but always incomplete. And, progress often experiences setbacks.
After falling for decades after the Second World War, income equality in America has soared since the 1980s. The majority of Americans have not participated in the economic gains of the past 40 years despite our recent discovery that many of our worst compensated workers are “essential.” Disparity distorts our communities, our politics, our priorities, and the health of our relationships with each other.
America is imperfect, but great nonetheless. It was great in 1776 as slaveholders participated in writing some of the most profound words in human history. It was great in 1863 as Americans fought and killed each other on our own soil. And, it is great today despite the willingness of far too many to support clear acts of insurrection and disenfranchisement.
Jefferson’s ideal is the nation’s guiding light and the country will remain great as long as the majority continue to believe in his vision and put in the effort to not just protect and preserve it, but also into ensuring that the nation’s trajectory is towards a greater equality of opportunity and liberty for everyone.
Lincoln understood both the specialness and fragility of the Declaration’s vision. Our freedom is no less special or fragile today than it was in his time. Treating others as equal to ourselves is not only hard, but often in conflict with our baser instincts. Ultimately, though, our own freedom is dependent on our offering the same freedom to all others. Our liberty is both a right and a responsibility. Our personal benefit comes from what we are willing to gift to others.