The Declaration of Independence, adopted by the Continental Congress on July 4, 1776, announced to the world that 13 North American colonies had separated from Great Britain. In formalizing the separation, the colonial representatives articulated the causes of a revolution that had been underway for more than a year and would take many more years to consummate.
Were the Declaration of Independence merely a revolutionary document, it would be an essential part of our nation’s history, applicable to one people at one time. Instead, as Lincoln observed, the document declared essential truths applicable to all people and at all times. Thus was the American experiment bound up from the start with universal principles: that all people are created equal and endowed by their Creator with the rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that governments are created to protect these natural rights; and that governments ultimately are accountable to the people.
After the Declaration, it would take the American revolutionaries five long years to outlast the powerful British military and another six years to fashion an enduring Constitutional charter. Yet, out of the fraught events of our founding commenced our great, perpetual project: to form a more perfect union in which the Declaration’s universal promise gains ever more universal acceptance and application.
“Very seldom, if ever, in the history of the world has a socio-political document expressed in such profound, eloquent, and unequivocal language, the dignity and the worth of human personality,” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. declared in an Independence Day address in 1965. And yet, as Dr. King candidly noted, too often have we failed to practice the democratic principles we so proudly proclaim. Indeed, the nation “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men were created equal” also was conceived in slavery, in disenfranchisement of everyone except white men of property.
No generation – not the revolutionary generation, and not any since – has fulfilled the Declaration’s promise. Yet, for nearly 250 years, we have been ennobled by the pursuit, strengthened by the struggle, and inspired by the progress. Over time the United States has woven principles of equality and justice into our laws and become the greatest example for liberty and opportunity in human history. The philosophical and legal foundation laid in the Revolutionary Era by its bold creators is the sturdy structure on which we have built and are building still.