If we want to celebrate what we think of as this nation’s ideal of equality for all, then we should be doing so on the anniversary of the Gettysburg Address, not the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
For almost 250 years, we’ve celebrated July 4th as the birth of our nation — a nation, in Lincoln’s words, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. But our reading of the Declaration of Independence as putting forth the promise of universal equality is wrong, and our ideals have a very different source.
In 1776, the Declaration was understood to be about the right of a people to define and govern itself. Jefferson’s “all men are created equal” was a description of the hypothetical state of nature, a shorthand rejection of the divine right of kings. It led to the idea that governments should protect the rights of the people who formed them, but it was not understood to have any implications for how the government should treat people such as the enslaved.
The colonists obsessed about British regulations on immigration and trade and what they considered an excessive number of British officials present in the colonies. They ignored the injustices they inflicted on others. They rose up against figurative enslavement by the Crown while literally enslaving people in America. When the Declaration of Independence alluded to slavery, it was to condemn King George for encouraging enslaved people to rebel. When the Revolution brought freedom to enslaved people, it was only because the war afforded them an opportunity to escape their Patriot masters and join the British. The British issued multiple emancipation proclamations; after the war, the Patriots demanded the return of the formerly enslaved.
Our modern (mis)understanding of the Declaration of Independence emerged decades after the Revolution. Looking for a federal document that supported equality, antislavery activists took the Declaration as the best they had and read into it a set of principles that Jefferson had quite deliberately left out. The principles of equality and universal liberty were not in the Constitution of 1787, either. They were declared at Gettysburg on November 19, 1863, and they entered our Constitution with the post-Civil War Reconstruction Amendments, the 13th, 14th, and 15th. It is those amendments that ban slavery, prohibit racial discrimination, and guarantee equality under law.
If we draw a line from the signers of the Declaration, it leads most naturally not to us in the present but to the secessionists of 1861. The Confederate states invoked the Declaration of Independence as justification for their rejection of the national government. The Confederacy celebrated July 4th during the Civil War, calling themselves the “loyal inheritors” of its principle of independence.
People don’t think that anymore, or at least they don’t say it out loud as often. But the ideological connection between the Revolutionary Patriots and the Southern secessionists is there in the background today. It is there in hysterical claims about government tyranny. It is the scaffolding upon which is built an obsessive focus on one’s own rights and a disdain for the rights of others. When, on January 6, 2021, a new set of self-styled patriots rejected the authority of the national government, unsurprisingly they flew Revolutionary flags alongside Confederate ones.
But if the January 6th insurrectionists took inspiration from the Revolution and secession, their cause differed in an important way. It was not about separation but about overthrow. It was a violent rejection of the democratic process. In that, it more closely resembles the end of the post-Civil War Reconstruction known as the Redemption, when white supremacist paramilitaries overthrew the integrated governments of the former Confederate states while the federal government stood by. In the 19th century, they called themselves the White League, the Red Shirts, the Ku Klux Klan. Now they are the Proud Boys, the Oathkeepers, the Three Percenters. They are the militant vanguard of a Second Redemption, fighting to undo the gains made by the Second Reconstruction of the Civil Rights era.
As much as 30 percent of our citizenry embraces the through line from July 4th to secession, from the Redemption to January 6th. Thirty percent is the portion of the white population that formed the Confederacy, and if it were concentrated in a discrete geographical region today, we might be facing secession and civil war already. (The 2022 Texas GOP platform demands a referendum on secession.)
But Trumpland is less a region than a fevered space in the American psyche, and secession is not likely. From one perspective, that is reassuring. From another, it simply raises the stakes. One region of the country cannot abandon another to this movement. If this Second Redemption wins, it wins everywhere. How can we fight it?
One answer is a set of structural political reforms that strengthen democracy. We can try to get around the antidemocratic Electoral College with the National Popular Vote Compact, by which states would pledge to award their electors to the winner of the national popular vote. We could reduce its distorting effect by adding members to the House of Representatives, which would bring the electoral power of states more in line with their populations. (Each state gets a number of electors equal to the number of its representatives plus its senators: Increasing the number of population-based representatives decreases the significance of the two-per-state senators.) We can add seats to the Supreme Court or impose term limits on the justices. We can demand a revitalized Voting Rights Act.
But at the same time, we have to change the story we tell about America. It is hard to say that our deepest values are democracy and equality while we celebrate a slaveholders’ rebellion as the birth of our nation. It is hard to say that America was born in a war for freedom when the Patriots condemned the British for freeing enslaved people and, after the war, demanded the return of “Negroes or other property.”
For generations, we said these things because there was no alternative. Abolitionists and, later, Abraham Lincoln, turned to the words of the Declaration because no other federal document so much as gestured at individual equality. All that changed with Reconstruction, when the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments made equality and universal liberty part of our higher law. Now we can tell a story about a nation born in a war for freedom, about a Constitution that codifies the ideals for which our white and Black soldiers fought and died. But that nation was not born in 1776, with ideals articulated in the Declaration. It was born in 1863, with the ideals of the Gettysburg Address. It is Reconstruction America, and its story needs to be heard.
Kermit Roosevelt III is professor of the administration of justice at the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School and the author of “The Nation That Never Was: Reconstructing America’s Story.”