We traditionally publish the Declaration of Independence on the editorial page on the Fourth of July. This year, we asked readers to share what this document means to them. The following is an edited sample of their responses. We will publish more, including submissions shared online, in Saturday’s edition.
It’s not a paean to individualism
Individualism has subverted the meaning of the Declaration of Independence. Words and phrases in the preamble, such as “liberty” and “all men are created equal,” have been taken out of historical context by 21st-century individualists. But the title of the document does not refer to individual freedom; the signers wanted independence from George III for the 13 united colonies. Phrases such as “one people” make it clear that this document was not a manifesto for individualism.
There is always a tension between individual desires and the common good; however, we are better off if we work together. Victory in the Revolutionary War, eventually resulting in immense societal and individual benefits, is an example for contemporary Americans that we gain from cooperation.
However, since large groups (minorities, women) were excluded in 1776, can the Declaration have any meaning for us in 2020? Borrowing words from the Declaration, it is our “duty” to “throw off” aspects of our government that deny rights to anyone in this country. We should model ourselves on our Founders, not in their failure to address equality for all, but in their willingness to sacrifice life and fortune for important principles.
John E. Hill
Sad but hopeful as he rereads Founders’ words
Rereading the Declaration of Independence makes me sad and, for other reasons, grateful and hopeful.
I am saddened by the blatantly perfidious language: “all men are created equal.” They didn’t seem to notice that slaves had already been in the colonies for 157 years. And they referred to Native Americans, whose land they were stealing, as “merciless Indian Savages.”
That hypocrisy led 12 years later to the slave-owning male cartel that produced the Constitution. In Article I, people who looked like me were considered three-fifths of a person. Only three years later, the Second Amendment was added to ensure that slave states could arm their slave patrols. And 75 years later, the 13th Amendment that purported to abolish slavery instead ensured that, to this day, it can still be practiced legally. One only needs to convict someone. Mass incarceration anyone?
On the other hand, those tortured and bigoted documents remind me that I’m grateful because of the many good people I’ve met over the years who, as the proverb goes, plant trees under whose shade they will never sit. They generously support charter schools primarily serving inner-city kids, for example, and they give of their time and financial support to countless programs serving people who don’t look like them. Knowing of their generosity gives me hope for our country.
The writer is a former member and chairman of the Massachusetts Board of Education.
Take a look at Jefferson’s other writing
Although several men contributed to the ideas expressed in the Declaration, it is widely known that Thomas Jefferson was its principal author. While he wrote that “all men are created equal,” it’s hard to separate those words from others he penned in his book “Notes on the State of Virginia,” in which he wrote, “Deep rooted prejudices entertained by the whites; ten thousand recollections, by the blacks, of the injuries they have sustained . . . will divide us into parties, and produce convulsions which will probably never end but in the extermination of one or the other race.”
For those of us who do not hold his view, perhaps it’s time for a modern-day codicil to Jefferson’s legacy.
Lauren Dewey Platt
We’re divided, not united
I have not read the Declaration of Independence in quite some time. I read it from beginning to end, knowing full well what was in the last paragraph. We have managed to take a giant step backward to what I consider the worst of times for our country. We have become divided, and we are not “united.”
We have a tyrannical government much like we did before the Declaration of Independence was agreed upon and signed by our Founding Fathers. Although many fellow Americans and I uphold the document’s essence, we are not behaving on behalf of one another. Now, more than ever, let us read, understand, and follow the Declaration’s message so that we can reestablish unity, strength, and respect, locally and internationally. Let’s use the pandemic and the protests over racial injustice as a message. Let’s recognize one another as individuals, with purposes and talents, and put others first.
Let’s not be confrontational and angry and misunderstanding of one another. Let’s do unto others as we would want them to do unto us.
Ellen E. Sampson
Consider Frederick Douglass’s words
Thank you for printing the Declaration of Independence on Saturday. It is so good to contemplate this document on the morning of the celebration of our national birthday. The day before, I had just read, for the first time, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” It is a speech Frederick Douglass gave on July 5, 1852, to the Rochester Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society. Like many, I was blown away by its power and the parallels I saw to our current national situation. Then I learned that NPR broadcast a reading of excerpts from Douglass’s speech by five young descendants of his.
Here’s one: “The existence of slavery . . . is the antagonistic force in your government, the only thing that seriously disturbs and endangers your Union. It fetters your progress; it is the enemy of improvement, the deadly foe of education; it fosters pride; it breeds insolence; it promotes vice; it shelters crime; it is a curse to the earth that supports it; and yet, you cling to it, as if it were the sheet anchor of all your hopes.”