My Challenge to You
History matters. July 4 of this year marks the 232nd anniversary of the July 4, 1776 proclamation of the American Declaration of Independence. What happened 232 years ago matters. How we treat it matters.
On this continent in that hot July 232 years ago, the members of the continental congress meeting in Philadelphia made an electrifying decision: that they would challenge the power of the British Empire for the right to govern themselves.
It was recklessly audacious to declare independence from a British Crown that was not willing to grant independence. The act of doing so was an act of treason, punishable by death. Under British law, the undertaking to which the signatories of the Declaration voluntarily committed themselves incurred the maximum possible risk to which any subject of the British monarch could be exposed. In signing their names to the Declaration, they signed their own death warrants, and they knew it.
Indeed, words like “reckless” and “audacious” cannot do justice to the step taken by the signatories of the Declaration of Independence. It was an act of raw courage of the highest possible order. It was electrifying, not only to the signers and their families, but to all the population of the 13 British colonies – newly declared to be free and independent states – and to all the world. It was not a genteel act. It was an action that was unimaginably subversive and revolutionary. It was an act that challenged the entire world order.
It was not the mere act of declaring political independence that was so electrifying. The signatories proclaimed much more than political independence from the British Empire. They proclaimed the independence of humanity from millennia of subservience to kings, princes, monarchs, priests, god-kings, and all measures of royalty, nobility, and divinity. They presented to the world a new vision of human social and political relations, one founded on the twin premises that all of us are equally ordained with universal and unalienable human rights and that no government can rightfully exist except by the consent of the governed.
Unique to the known history of the planet up to that day, the signers of the Declaration announced to their American countrymen, to the British King, and to the world that here and now they were establishing a whole new way of doing things, of arranging human society, of human life itself: that they were proclaiming not only a new political entity and government, but a new society based on unshakable commitment to the propositions that human beings have irrefutable universal rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that the purpose of government is to secure these rights; and that the only legitimate powers of government are those derived from the consent of the governed.
And they also said: the establishment of our new society is so important to us that we would rather die than live without it, and for the accomplishment of the freedom to realize this vision we pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor. In other words, we commit ourselves to giving up everything we have to give, to sacrificing all that we have to sacrifice, to obtain this; and we seal the commitment with our mutual and reciprocal pledges to each other.
In their own lifetimes, the signatories of the Declaration and their generation were terribly flawed in the immediate implementation. They did not apply their vision of universal and equal human rights to slaves, descendants of slaves, people of the indigenous tribes, penniless persons, or women. But it does not excuse them from these terrible flaws to say at the same time that the Declaration they delivered to the world was nevertheless remarkable for the vision it set forth and for the beginning it sparked. The terribleness of the flaws and the remarkableness of the vision are both undeniable and irrefutable.
Every American, whether descended from two centuries or two generations of American forebears, whether a native-born American or an immigrant American, is an heir to the vision declared to the world on July 4, 1776. It is my contention that every generation of Americans is morally duty-bound to advance the progress of human society closer toward the realization of the vision set forth in the Declaration of Independence. It is our birthright and our legacy.
For we who are here to witness the 232nd anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, I wonder whether any of us could do what they did in deciding to sign the document. In fact, I wonder how many of us realize how short a time 232 years represents in the march of history. In my estimation, 232 years is far too short a lifetime for the legacy of the Declaration of Independence. It is far too soon for it to die. The Roman Republic had a history of 600 years even before the Caesars replaced the republic with an empire ruled by an emperor. There are cities and towns in Europe, Africa, and Asia that have existed continuously as organized municipalities for more than two thousand years. In the long view of history, 1776 was but an eye-blink ago.
The situation confronting Americans on July 4, 2008 is not a pretty one for the vision of the Declaration. A ruling cabal that does not understand, appreciate, or care about the meaning of the Declaration of Independence has pushed us collectively backward, further away from the realization of the vision, in the opposite direction from living up to our legacy. They have pushed us so far backward that the very fabric of our national vision has been bashed and battered in ways that have frightened us profoundly during the reign of the cabal. It tears at our collective soul. It rips us and sears us.
And in our national legislature, the U.S. Congress, the leadership of the opposition party that attained political power in the Congress in the last general election two years ago continues to react with maddening and frightening lameness to the ruling cabal’s continuing desecration of these national values that constitute our inheritance from not only our revolutionary forebears of 1776, but also from all the other countless heroes and heroines, sung and unsung, who have strived and struggled to advance the progress of the vision in all the decades and years from then until now.
To mark the 232nd anniversary of the Declaration of Independence in this year of 2008, I hereby solemnly rededicate myself to unswerving faithfulness to its magnificent and revolutionary vision. I will not accept or excuse further backward movement from its goals by those who serve as elected representatives in our self-government or by those who aspire to be elected. I make this pledge with the utmost seriousness and gravity. I challenge you to do the same.