But with all that, the words of the declaration, rendered familiar by repetition, deserve to be pondered by Americans today, for they are contested as much now as they have ever been. Do Americans still believe in “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God,” and that those laws entitle all peoples to independence? Why should we show “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind”? To paraphrase Groucho Marx: What has humanity ever done for us? Is it indeed self-evident that we are all created equal, and in what sense could that be so? How do we know that the Creator has created rights we cannot give up? Are “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness” the real ends of government? Do those objectives aim too low? And really, who believes in “sacred Honor” these days?
Nor is the bill of particulars to be ignored. Consider how many of the declaration’s accusations against King George had to do with that hardy perennial—civil-military relations: “He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil Power.” Or with the issue of immigration: The king had deliberately (Jefferson insisted) obstructed “Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither.” Or with judicial independence: “He has made Judges on his Will alone for the tenure of their offices.” Those issues live, in the United States and elsewhere.
The issues in the declaration are not merely American, but rather universal, and that is precisely what makes the United States exceptional. Not its reality at any given time, which may be worse or better than that of other states; a country stained by its bloody and often cruel treatment of Native Americans, or by its tolerance of slavery and its aftermath, cannot claim to be a utopia. Nor even its prosperity, for in that regard, tiny Switzerland can claim to have surpassed today’s America. The United States, rather, is exceptional in the universality of its argument, the ideals that inspire and shame succeeding generations, and that offer the characteristically American promise of improvement, change, growth, and hope for the future.
Jefferson knew that the declaration he wrote had planted a bomb and lit a fuse under the institution that made his life comfortable. “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just,” he wrote, as the Revolution came to an end. But though he may have lacked consistency and courage, he wrote the declaration anyway. Those who conjured up American independence were, like any group of politicians, frail and flawed human beings. They could not have foreseen all the consequences. But they nonetheless put forward, and fought to defend, claims that have set off many subsequent detonations.
When Abraham Lincoln began the Gettysburg Address by pointing to the founding of the United States, he looked not to the passage of the Constitution, but rather to the Declaration of Independence, issued four score and seven years before. If his rhetoric on that occasion summoned forth a new birth of freedom, it was in self-conscious echo of the first.