We Hold These Truths

July 4, 1776 is the day that the 13 British colonies in America declared their independence from Great Britain. It is the official birthday of the United States of America. The document called the Declaration of Independence tells the reasons for the colonies separating from Great Britain. The war that the colonies fought against Great Britain began in 1775. It ended in 1783.

Of all of the words of the Declaration, the most well known are probably these: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal...” For many Americans, looking back upon this declaration over the last 241 years, the words appear to be a lie. If they are black or native or a female or non-Christian or one of the many new genders created by society they could most certainly hold that view. For many “Americans” living in the colonies over the course of the 169 years before this declaration— they could have had no understanding of this concept of equality. Until 1776, it had no meaning as a concept in civil society for governing.

But what did the founders of this new nation mean by their declaration about the “all men”? They meant all White men that were also property owners. They did not mean slaves or natives or females or those who did not own property.

Some historians conclude that Thomas Jefferson who wrote the words actually meant all White people and people of every stripe when he wrote them. They conclude that his position hardened to include only White male property owners as the war went on. However one looks at that matter what is clear is what actually happened. By the time the Constitution was ratified in 1788, the “all men” of the new Slave Nation meant White male property owners only — as it had before 1776.

In the context of 1776, the phrase “all men” made sense. Fortunately, over time, the system of government that was put in place in 1776 made it possible for the “all men” to become all black and white and native men and women of all faiths and all gender preferences in the context of civil society and government.

That is good and it represents the best of what has flowed from the American experiment since 1607. What is not good is the structure of racial superiority and inferiority that was put in place from the beginning to establish and maintain the labor system of slavery. That system existed before the “all men” of 1776. It existed alongside the “all men” of 1776. And, it exists today as a way of thinking. It exists today because the nation has never changed its collective mind about race.

We should have changed our minds about this long ago. Now is the time. Recognizing the contribution of the first 12 generations of African Americans to the birth, growth and survival of the United State of America is a starting place. Honoring them is a starting place. Understanding the history of contribution is a starting place. Changed thinking is a starting place. Being intentional about pursuing national racial reconciliation is the goal.

So, as we celebrate our freedoms with barbecue and fireworks and parades and patriotic songs, don’t forget. Remember that the structure of race that was so devastating to the slave and the slaveholder is still in place for their descendants. Abolishing it is the road to a better tomorrow. That does not require shame or guilt. Let the history change your mind.