Go Read the Declaration of Independence

The universality of its ideals is precisely what makes the United States exceptional.

Hannah Mckay / Reuters

About the author: Eliot A. Cohen is a contributing writer at The Atlantic, a professor at The Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, and the Arleigh Burke chair in strategy at CSIS. From 2007 to 2009, he was the Counselor of the Department of State. He is the author most recently of The Big Stick: The Limits of Soft Power and the Necessity of Military Force.

There are July 4 traditions that are welcome and seemingly indestructible: barbecues and fireworks, most notably. There are some that are fortunately defunct: hours-long orations by stuffed-shirt politicians. There are some innovations that one hopes do not become traditions: 60-ton tanks rolling through Washington, D.C., most notably. And there is one that has faded with time, yet is worth preserving: reading the entire Declaration of Independence, from the ringing opening through the bill of particulars to the pledge of “our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.”

Some will say that the declaration was merely a cleverly written piece of propaganda. Others find in it the rank hypocrisy of its principal author, Thomas Jefferson, who preached liberty and who treated human beings as chattel. Still others will find it out-of-date Enlightenment twaddle that ignores the higher ends of politics or, conversely, an absurdly optimistic claim that anyone can, and everyone should, govern oneself. Its critics say those things today. They said them no less pointedly in 1776. The English sage Samuel Johnson had the most cutting put-down: “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?” And he had a point.

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.

When Martin Luther King Jr. stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963 he said, “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’” For King, the glory of the declaration was the ideal, no matter the reality under which his people had suffered. Like none other, he saw the declaration as a mirror that Americans must hold up to themselves. And if they did not like what they saw, they could change things.

There have always been Americans who chafe at the universalism of the declaration, and foreigners who disdain or repudiate it. There will never be a shortage of critics who note the ways in which the United States fails to live up to this, its founding promise. But the heart of the American creed has never been more important.

Today liberal democracy is under threat from multiple quarters. New technologies make surveillance and repression easier than ever before, while some authoritarian governments have figured out ways to ensure both prosperity and political docility. Science may undermine the premise of human equality in many ways. It is not uncommon to read sneers from foreign observers of the United States (and even from quite a few Americans) who charge that the United States is saddled with 18th-century dogmas and 18th-century ways of doing business. Americans’ confidence in their political institutions is at an all-time low, and partisan bitterness gives no sign of abating its rancor.

Which is all the more reason to go back to the beginnings, and back to the document that started it all. Americans are often blamed for their naive patriotism. Perhaps so. One cure for sophisticated cringing about naive patriotism can be going to a naturalization ceremony.

At one such event that I witnessed in the early 2000s, in a shabby government office building, there were immigrants from more than two dozen countries, ranging from Albania to Vietnam. After the formalities, the presiding official shoved a videocassette into a player, and President George W. Bush made an appearance. He spoke only a few sentences, which ended: “And remember, you are now every bit as much a citizen as someone whose ancestors came over on the Mayflower.” There were tears in a lot of eyes.

Immigrants, such as my own grandparents, may be those who appreciate most how precious and how radical the promise of the declaration is. But if they read and ponder its words—after the hot dogs, but before the fireworks—later generations may see in it something at which to marvel, something that still terrifies tyrants, and something worth defending to the last.