another, and to assume among the Powers of the earth, the separate and
equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle
But the statement went on to declare much more than just political
independence from England. There were probably a lot of landed sons of
English aristocracy reading the document that summer and whispering the
18th-century equivalent of "Holy cow."
"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.
That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men,
deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed."
Of course, everyone knew Thomas Jefferson was a bit of a Renaissance
Man, a man constantly tinkering at strange inventions and filled with
high-minded thoughts of noble savages and an aristocracy of talent. But
he was also undoubtedly one of the boys, a slave owner who kept ledgers
of his human property. And this stuff, this -- declaration -- must have
seemed over the top even for students of the Enlightenment.
So perhaps the real wonder of 1776 was not so much that a Virginia
plantation owner had fashioned the greatest affirmation of freedom the
world had ever seen, but that on July 4 of that year, 56 prominent
members of the colonial privileged class committed treason against the
Crown by signing it. It's one thing to speak loftily of the Rights of the
Common Man, quite another to stake your life on it.
Certainly, the signers weren't putting their stamp of approval on the
democracy we enjoy in America today. The freedom born in Philadelphia 224
years ago this Tuesday was at the time a freedom only for white American
men, and pretty much only those men who owned property. Women and black
people weren't included in it, and the indigenous peoples who populated
the continent were dismissed in the declaration as less-than-noble
savages and threats to public safety.