The Choice They Made
Half a century ago the philosopher Leo Strauss remarked that the passage in which the Declaration of Independence proclaims its self-evident truths “has frequently been quoted, but, by its weight and its elevation, it is made immune to the degrading effects of the excessive familiarity which breeds contempt and of misuse which breeds disgust.”
I’ve had occasion to test this claim. The last few years, we’ve spent July Fourth at the house of friends who have had the assembled company read the entire declaration. It’s a longer document than one thinks; the charges against the king take quite a while to get through.
But I can report from firsthand experience that the declaration as a whole, and not just its most famous phrases, remains remarkably immune to the degrading effects of excessive familiarity. I was doubtful at first that reading the declaration would enhance the overall beer-and-hamburger experience of the day. But the effort has proved more thought-provoking and patriotism-stirring than I expected.
So this year, perhaps pressing our luck (and patience), I’m thinking of proposing the reading of an additional text: Thomas Jefferson’s letter to Roger Weightman of June 24, 1826.
With regret, the 83-year-old Jefferson wrote that his ill health compelled him to decline the invitation to travel to Washington for the celebration of the 50th anniversary of American independence. But then, perhaps knowing this would be his final word, Jefferson sets forth in stirring prose his faith in the universal significance of the Declaration of Independence:
“May it be to the world, what I believe it will be, (to some parts sooner, to others later, but finally to all,) the signal of arousing men to burst the chains, under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings & security of self-government.”
Jefferson claims his faith is based on the progress of enlightenment. He is confident that “all eyes are opened, or opening, to the rights of man.” Indeed, “The general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view, the palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of god.”
Jefferson may have been overly sanguine that the spread of the light of science would necessarily strengthen the cause of human rights. But even the optimistic Jefferson was well aware that the enemies of liberty and equality could regroup and resist — certainly abroad, perhaps even at home.
That’s one reason he trusted that “the annual return of this day” would “forever refresh our recollections of these rights, and an undiminished devotion to them.” Our devotion — and the sacrifices inspired by that devotion — are needed to make effectual the palpable truth of human equality.
The fate of equality, Jefferson makes clear, also depends on those who see further than, and act first on behalf of, their fellow citizens. In the letter, Jefferson pays tribute to his fellow signers — “that host of worthies, who joined with us on that day, in the bold and doubtful election we were to make for our country, between submission or the sword.” He wishes he could meet with the few of that band who still survived “to have enjoyed with them the consolatory fact, that our fellow citizens, after half a century of experience and prosperity, continue to approve the choice we made.”
So the signers of the declaration made the bold and doubtful choice for independence. Their fellow citizens ratified the choice. But they might have been slow to act if the worthies had not moved first.
For, as the declaration itself notes, “all experience hath shown, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.” The people are conservative. Liberty sometimes requires the bold leadership of a few individuals.
Perhaps that’s why the representatives, who have signed on behalf of “the good people” of the colonies, “mutually pledge to each other” their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor in support of the declaration. Their pledge isn’t to the people. The pledge is an individual one by the signers to one another.
And the pledge has to be supported by a sense of honor — even of sacred honor. The declaration’s assertion of equal rights, one may say, is supported by what is necessarily unequal, the sense of honor of those acting on the people’s behalf.
Shortly after writing the letter to Weightman, Jefferson died at home in Monticello. On that very same day — the 50th anniversary of the adoption of the declaration, July 4, 1826 — in Quincy, Mass., Jefferson’s fellow drafter and signer John Adams also died. Yet as Adams reportedly said on his death bed, “Thomas Jefferson survives.”