When did human beings proclaim that “all men are created equal”? Moses never mentioned it. Not the brilliant Sokrates. Not the Buddha. Not Confucius. Not even Jesus, who gave his blood in love to be one in earthly sorrow with those not born of virgins.
When, then, was the first time human dignity was affirmed in a single sentence?
Not until Thomas Jefferson the slave owner’s pen declared it as so. In Congress on July 4, 1776 the world was informed officially that every person’s worth is determined in and by their creation — and protected from the capricious whims of people and government by force of law itself.
And, as Abraham Lincoln told the Alton, Illinois audience of his seventh and final debate with Stephen Douglas on October 15, 1858, the violations of all Americans’ rights to “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness” then apparent hardly invalidated the Framers’ words:
I think the authors of that notable instrument intended to include all men, but they did not mean to declare all men equal in all respects. They did not mean to say all men were equal in color, size, intellect, moral development or social capacity. They defined with tolerable distinctness in what they did consider all men created equal — equal in certain inalienable rights, among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. This they said, and this they meant. They did not mean to assert the obvious untruth, that all were then actually enjoying that equality, or yet, that they were about to confer it immediately upon them. In fact they had no power to confer such a boon. They meant simply to declare the right, so that the enforcement of it might follow as fast as circumstances should permit.
They meant to set up a standard maxim for free society which should be familiar to all: constantly looked to, constantly labored for, and even, though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated, and thereby constantly spreading and deepening its influence and augmenting the happiness and value of life to all people, of all colors, every where.
To be free had never before been recognized as a right in the formation of a nation — if rights were ever recognized on those rare occasions at all. Though the majority of the document is devoted to the grievances against the Crown, the reason given for America’s right to independence is the rights which are humanity’s birthright.
Though other colonies had made similar declarations in their own constitutions, what is exceptional is that an entire country — with all the injustices it had inherited from the British Empire, which would continue to fester for many decades to come — the Declaration of July 4, 1776 is among the most remarkable documents in human history because it challenges the very social reality in which it was created to face the ultimate reality of a God’s Law, antecedent to human political legislation.
None of America’s imperfections are peculiar to her; every great society has enslaved its fellow humans and been plagued by contemptible political corruption.
What is truly exceptional is America’s response to all injustices — the Declaration whose ratification we celebrate was the original weapon in the American arsenal. It was the Declaration which Lincoln cited as the nation moved closer to war — the first war in history to break the bondage of others.
America, even through its blunders and flirtations with the failed ideologies of Europe, has been a force for global good comparable to no other. Untold millions have been liberated from poverty unfathomable to Western moderns through Indian and Chinese efforts, however corrupt, to imitate American market capitalism. Millions of lives were saved through the most appalling decision in modern human history — the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan — for a war which was originally intended to culminate with the “Honorable Death of the Hundred-Million” was ended with a peaceful Japanese surrender.
Therefore, every Independence Day, the exceptionalism of America should be remembered as Lincoln remembered it: that it is was a day which launched a society which “constantly looked to, constantly labored for, and even, though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated, and thereby constantly [spread] and deepen[ed] its influence and augment[ed] the happiness and value of life to all people, of all colors, every where.”