This article is not about Bourbon, but bear with me for a few minutes, please. While I’m not writing about America’s native spirit, I believe this post is about the spirit of America.
“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.”
The Founding Fathers in the Declaration of Independence at once dissolved ties with England and established a principle and a creed for the Nation they had just created. It was a standard for America to live up to. It was a goal that still needed to be reached even after the Revolution against England was complete. This Declaration of Independence was, and is still, a statement of hope.
Hope was found in The Declaration by Frederick Douglass. In 1852 (nearly a dozen years before the Emancipation Proclamation) Douglass delivered a landmark speech “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?”. There are excerpts and dramatic readings of it on the internet, but they are heavily edited (you can find the full text here). It deserves a complete read, but in summary, there are three “acts” to the speech. The first act reminds the audience of the importance of American independence and the greatness of the founders.
“Fellow Citizens, I am not wanting in respect for the fathers of this republic. The signers of the Declaration of Independence were brave men. They were great men too — great enough to give fame to a great age. It does not often happen to a nation to raise, at one time, such a number of truly great men. The point from which I am compelled to view them is not, certainly, the most favorable; and yet I cannot contemplate their great deeds with less than admiration. They were statesmen, patriots and heroes, and for the good they did, and the principles they contended for, I will unite with you to honor their memory.
They loved their country better than their own private interests; and, though this is not the highest form of human excellence, all will concede that it is a rare virtue, and that when it is exhibited, it ought to command respect. He who will, intelligently, lay down his life for his country, is a man whom it is not in human nature to despise. Your fathers staked their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor, on the cause of their country. In their admiration of liberty, they lost sight of all other interests.”
In the second act, Douglass rightly blasts people, politicians and preachers of the day for allowing slavery to continue in America. “Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us?”, Douglass asks. The answer, obviously and unjustly, remained “no”. Douglass went on to paint a poignant picture of the hypocrisy and sin of the continued existence of slavery in a land claiming “all men are created equal”.
In the final act of this speech, Douglass returns to the Declaration of Independence: “Allow me to say, in conclusion, notwithstanding the dark picture I have this day presented of the state of the nation, I do not despair of this country. There are forces in operation, which must inevitably work the downfall of slavery. “The arm of the Lord is not shortened,” and the doom of slavery is certain. I, therefore, leave off where I began, with hope. While drawing encouragement from the Declaration of Independence, the great principles it contains, and the genius of American Institutions, my spirit is also cheered by the obvious tendencies of the age.”
In an 1861 speech, just weeks before the start of the Civil War, President Lincoln spoke of the hope derived from the Declaration: “I have often inquired of myself, what great principle or idea it was that kept this [nation] so long together. It was not the mere matter of the separation of the colonies from the mother land; but something in that Declaration giving liberty, not alone to the people of this country, but hope to the world for all future time. It was that which gave promise that in due time the weights should be lifted from the shoulders of all men, and that all should have an equal chance. This is the sentiment embodied in that Declaration of Independence.”
Throughout his career, Lincoln’s political compass was the Declaration of Independence. He said this at a debate in 1858: “They [the Founders who issued the Declaration] 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.”
At that same debate, Lincoln went on to acknowledge “They (the Founders) did not mean to assert the obvious untruth, that all were then actually enjoying that equality, nor 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.”
Martin Luther King, Jr. in his legendary “I Have a Dream” speech (full text here) makes reference to the Declaration of Independence. “When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the “unalienable Rights” of ‘Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness’.” King went on to accurately say that America had defaulted on that promissory note, “But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation.”
King references the Declaration as part of his hope for America: “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”
As we stand at July 4 of this notorious year, we hear calls to “cancel July 4th” and to tear down the monuments of the Founding Fathers. The men who started this nation were not perfect. Douglass knew it. Lincoln knew it. King knew it. They, themselves, knew it. The creed and principle they established, however, was and is still brave, brilliant and perfect: All men are created equal, and that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.
Restating Lincoln on the Declaration: “constantly looked to, constantly labored for, and even, though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated, and thereby constantly spreading and deepening its influence”. But, still having work towards it’s attainment does not mean we abandon the principle or those who established it. On the contrary, hold those principles up higher to guide us. Douglass says it much better: “I have said that the Declaration of Independence is the ring-bolt to the chain of your nation’s destiny; so, indeed, I regard it. The principles contained in that instrument are saving principles. Stand by those principles, be true to them on all occasions, in all places, against all foes, and at whatever cost. From the round top of your ship of state, dark and threatening clouds may be seen. Heavy billows, like mountains in the distance, disclose to the leeward huge forms of flinty rocks! That bolt drawn, that chain broken, and all is lost. Cling to this day — cling to it, and to its principles, with the grasp of a storm-tossed mariner to a spar at midnight.”
These rights spoken of in the Declaration are not derived from government. They are derived from God. Government’s role is to protect those rights…not to assign them, reassign them or cancel them. The Divine source of our rights as Americans only enhances their value. Protect them. Hold them dearly. Never take them for granted.
What I have attempted to do in this post is provide a little hope in the midst of a year full of despair. And as some are now disparaging America, her founding and her Founders, remember who you are and what you are called to as an American. In all of our personal and national imperfections we remain the greatest nation this world has ever known. Raise a glass to the Founders, to Douglass, to Lincoln and to King. Raise a glass to all who strive today to bring us closer to the “never perfectly attained” creed of the Declaration. Raise a glass to hope in this year that sorely needs it. God bless America and all those who protect her and call her home. Cheers!