A History Teacher’s Reflections on Liberty and Equality for All

On the Fourth of July in 2019, had a rather unique set of experiences. I started that day at Fort McHenry, where the flag that inspired Francis Scott Key to pen the words to The Star-Spangled Banner flew. A typical American summer holiday afternoon followed, with the requisite hotdogs, and family, and friends, and baseball, and a nap. Then that evening after an incredible seafood dinner I was able to watch a rather impressive and beautiful fireworks display over Baltimore’s Inner Harbor.

Through all of that (and almost daily in the 731 some days since) I have embraced the opportunity to reflect on the meaning of the day and examine just what it is we celebrate yearly on this day.

It has become rather in vogue to criticize the Declaration of Independence for the inadequacies and failures contained within it. Those sentiments are not wrong. The document is flawed. At the time of the original writing, the “all men” that are created equal refers mainly to white, mostly educated, land-owning, males who were also church members. That is a narrow segment of the American population for any point in time since the founding of Jamestown in 1607. If you simply focus on this reading, the document becomes admittedly quite lacking. But this type of reading ignores how this was a step forward in liberty. Many of the founders found themselves advocating for freedom because their family had left England to seek a new path forward. For most, had they stayed in England any path to participation in society or any measure of prominence was blocked by religious affiliation or primogeniture laws (basically their misfortune for not being born first). These families came here to seek opportunities blocked at home. Their descendants led the revolutionary efforts in the mid to late 18th century. Their attainment of standing in society to even be able to address King George as they do in the Declaration of Independence represented a key step forward in the journey of the arc of liberty.

Further, it has long been held they saw this journey of liberty to be ever-expanding.

Consider these words from George Washington found in His Letter to a Hebrew Congregation in Newport, RI.

The Citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.

Washington saw young America as a place for expanding freedoms and a place where all had equal footing. He saw this nation as a place where there would be no tolerance for any form of bigotry or persecution. Yes this is an ironic belief from a slaveholder but freedom has to have an origin point and since Stan Lee and Marvel studies are not writing and producing the back story of liberty and equality the origin point will never be perfect. This freedom does start with these self-evident truths: 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.

Abraham Lincoln had a rather high view of the Declaration. He saw it as a living document and a quite inspiring work of genius. In an impromptu speech at Independence Hall in Philadelphia days before his First Inauguration during the late Winter of 1861 Lincoln said:

I have never had a feeling politically that did not spring from the sentiments embodied in the Declaration of Independence…

…I have often inquired of myself, what great principle or idea it was that kept this Confederacy (meaning the Union) so long together. It was not the mere matter of the separation of the Colonies from the motherland; but that sentiment in the Declaration of Independence which gave liberty, not alone to the people of this country, but, I hope, to the world, for all future time. It was that which gave promise that in due time the weight would be lifted from the shoulders of all men. This is a sentiment embodied in the Declaration of Independence.

Lincoln says this document is giving hope that liberty will continue to spread, and flow from here throughout the world. This is the same theme that flows so poignantly through his speech commemorating the battlefield at Gettysburg some 30 short, albeit troublesome, months later. It is the same hope and spirit that should allow all of us to be proud to be Americans today.

America, at 245 years old, is still far from perfect. I mean, take one look at the election last fall and the vast numbers still refusing to accept it, or look at our continued systemic racism, or look at the systematic attack on voting or teaching of history across the nation and this fact of imperfection shines forth. Yet, we can still be proud to be American’s because of this hope in the continued growth of the sentiments first expressed in the Declaration. The work of liberty was not a finished act in 1776, or 1781, or 1789, or 1865, or 1964, or even yet in 2021. But the work is ongoing and until we acknowledge it is not finished we will never expand equality any further. We should celebrate the work that has been done while recognizing the ways liberty still needs to grow. This unfinished work should serve as our motivation as we proudly commit to the process of the continued expanse of liberty and equality for all!