Independence Day is our annual invitation to revisit our founding story – how the representatives of 13 British colonies signed the Declaration of Independence, a document that would have been more than enough evidence to hang them for treason if the Revolution had not gone their way.

The words ring across centuries: “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.”

This year, millions of Americans did not wait for the July Fourth holiday to look at their history, this time through the lens of racial justice.

The Black Lives Matter protests last month put new energy behind the movement to take down monuments to and symbols of the Confederacy, and many are digging deeper into our history, seeing how the forces of colonialism, white supremacy and exploitation are not limited to the slave owners’ rebellion of the 1860s. In that light, what can we say about the slave-owning author of the Declaration, Thomas Jefferson?

People are complicated. No historical figure should be idolized. We as a nation are still dealing with the legacy of slavery, and that requires a deep understanding about how it influenced our development.

But we should never let a critical view of Jefferson, the man, obscure the ideas he unleashed in the Declaration of Independence. If we ever achieve racial justice in this country, it will be because of the principles he outlined in 1776.


As John Charles Thomas, the first African American appointed to the Virginia Supreme Court, said, “Although Jefferson was imperfect, he had a perfect idea.

Most of the Declaration is made up of a list of specific grievances against the king of England, which don’t have a lot of relevance to the present day. (When’s the last time someone tried to quarter troops in your house?)

But the notion of radical equality speaks to all people at all times.

Abraham Lincoln called it a “majestic interpretation of the economy of the Universe.”

Even before his views on abolition fully evolved, Lincoln saw how slavery was inconsistent with the ideals of the Founders. In an 1851 speech, Lincoln said:

“In their enlightened belief, nothing stamped with the Divine image and likeness was sent into the world to be trodden on, and degraded, and imbruted by its fellows.”


Lincoln quoted the Declaration in his most famous speech, the Gettysburg Address.

Martin Luther King Jr. quoted the same lines in 1963, while standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in his “I Have a Dream” speech.

Later, King noted: “Never before in the history of the world has a sociopolitical document expressed in such profound, eloquent and unequivocal language the dignity and the worth of human personality. The American dream reminds us – and we should think about it anew on this Independence Day – that every man is an heir of the legacy of dignity and worth.”

How could words like that be written by someone who bought, sold and owned other human beings, including, at various periods in their lives, his own children? There are no easy answers.

“The Founders were geniuses in many respects,” said Joseph Ellis, a scholar of the Revolutionary era. “They could imagine before anybody else a large republic. They could imagine the separation of church and state. Nobody thought you could do that then. But they could not imagine a racially equal society.”

That blindness to other people’s humanity did not prevent Jefferson from expressing the second, earth-shaking idea in the Declaration – that people have the duty to change their government if it interferes with their natural rights.

“Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,” Jefferson wrote. “That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, …”

How does that influence what we do about the vast inequality that exists in the nation founded in 1776?

On the 50th anniversary of the signing, shortly before his death, Thomas Jefferson wrote that the Declaration is “an instrument pregnant with our own and the fate of the world.”

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