Every time Independence Day rolls around, I think about the contradictions between the soaring ideals of the Declaration of Independence and the baser actions of the author. There’s a lesson in there for all of us, if we care to give it any thought.
Thomas Jefferson worked to undermine George Washington while serving as Secretary of State within his administration. He spoke of equality while owning slaves. Like many southern gentlemen, he held a rank in the militia, but never dirtied his hands in combat. He racked up enormous debts he couldn’t repay in his lifetime, leaving his heirs to deal with the fallout. He placed the autonomy of states, specifically his own state, above the security of the nation. As founding fathers go, he was the worst.
And yet…he penned what remains one of the most revolutionary and inspirational documents in human history: The Declaration of Independence. An open letter to the rest of the world, the declaration argued that governments are subservient to the rights of the governed and that all men are created equal. In a world of kings and commoners, the idea that royal subjects could simply say, “You’re not the boss of me anymore,” was about as radical as you can get.
Every year around this time, I re-read the Declaration of Independence and every time I get misty as it ends with, “We mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.” Signing the document was pretty much the same as signing a death warrant for John Hancock and all the delegates who followed, and all of these were prominent men with both lives and fortunes in the balance.
When I read the Declaration, I’m always challenged by two major topics. The first is the airing of grievances against George III and his government. Run through the list and you’ll find a half dozen, or more, complaints that many people levy against our own government today. This isn’t a political blog, so we’re not going to dive into all the similarities and differences between then and now, but it’s a telling reminder of the tensions that always exist between individual citizens and their governments.
Second, and more challenging to me, is the stark difference between the ideals of the author and his lifelong practices. Jefferson was both a radical in theory and a conservative in practice, which made him a hypocrite.
We’re all like that, aren’t we? We pen open letters to the world, proclaiming our ideals and our morality, but we might be just a trifle looser about that vision when it comes to our institutions, our state, our leaders…and ourselves. We might insist on holding others to high standards while writing ourselves a Get Out of Jail Free card. We just might be more like Thomas Jefferson than we ever recognized, although not in a good way.
BTW, if you haven’t read the DOI lately, here’s a link to the text at the National Archives. Have a great holiday.
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