We have entered the decade of the Declaration of Independence Semiquincentennial with social turmoil similar in magnitude to the fateful 1770s. Simultaneous and intersecting crises in public health, the economy, and race relations have made 2020 feel more like a time to start fresh than a time to celebrate the past. Many Americans find themselves looking around, bewildered and confused, unsure of what’s going on and at a loss to know what do to about it. As Captain Josh Harris of Deadliest Catch aptly put it: “There are three types of people in the world—people who watch stuff happen, people who make stuff happen, and people who wonder what the heck just happened.” Most Americans have found themselves in the third camp at various times during the last six months.
The Americans of 1776 were of the second camp. They made things happen. They built a foundation for constructive and sustainable change that has inspired progressive social transformation in the U.S. ever since. The movement to abolish slavery, the women’s rights movements of the 19th and early 20th centuries, and the African American Civil Rights Movement of the 20th century all relied heavily on the ideas and rhetoric of the Declaration of Independence in justifying themselves and persuading others. The white men who wrote that “all men are created equal” may have been thinking mostly of themselves, but the principle of inherent equality they enunciated has since been explicitly expanded in meaning to include a much wider swath of humanity. When particular concerns relating to certain groups have been overlooked or excluded from the ideals of that Declaration, activists have continued to push for their rights to be heard and recognized as an equal priority in the quest for the full realization of citizenship.
In some ways we have made great progress since that first 4th of July. Our temptation is to look back on the American people of 1776 as relative simpletons—almost cavemen in comparison to the average smartphone-wielding super-scroller today. We have the world at our fingertips, with access to a wealth of educational information that was unavailable to our forebears. We are enlightened and experienced, better people inhabiting a better world.
One thing the Covid-19 crisis and the 2020 Uprisings should jointly teach us is that this smug assumption is mistaken. As the saying goes, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Trapped in the tiny, fast-moving space between the past and the future, we tend to fall victim to the optical illusion that our moment is new and vastly different from what has come before. Future moments stretch ahead beyond an inscrutable horizon. We feel like we’re living in a 50 First Dates world, when the truth is that it’s actually more like Groundhog Day.
Take racism. In 1777, Prince Hall and other free African Americans petitioned the Massachusetts legislature to end the institution of slavery. In the words of their petition, echoing the Declaration of Independence adopted just five months earlier, “Every principle from which America has acted in the course of their unhappy difficulties with Great Britain pleads stronger than a thousand arguments in favor of your petitioners.” Even in Massachusetts, the seedbed of Revolutionary fervor, Hall’s petition failed to move the legislature to act.
This example shows that it was not ignorance or mere short-sightedness that prevented the American Revolutionary generation from addressing the terrible injustice of slavery. It wasn’t just that they were living in the past. The Americans of 1776 knew, or could have known, that racism and slavery were wrong in just the same way we can know now. In fact, one might argue that they were better positioned to understand these important truths than we are today. After all, they were actually fighting a war for the principles of liberty and equality rather than tranquilly enjoying the status quo.
The main reason race-based slavery wasn’t abolished in 1776 was the same reason its modern reverberations of systemic racism aren’t addressed today: human nature. Humans are humans everywhere and at every time we find them; and although humans aren’t racist by nature, certain features of human nature support racist behavior and institution-building. Selfishness, pride, materialism, and greed may not define all human beings, but they are powerful components of every human society in history. The particular iteration of these vices in the United States has created an enduring societal hierarchy driven by a xenophobic reaction against people who differ in any way from the status quo, embodied in the very “fore-fathers” who wrote our founding documents.
On the other hand, the principles of justice, equality, and freedom also seem to have roots in our human nature. The “self-evident truths” of the Declaration of Independence represent one attempt to express and nurture these roots. The fireworks we use to celebrate the 4th of July should remind us of these aspirational parts of our humanity. Like the stars in their courses—imagery used both by W.E.B. Du Bois and Martin Luther King, Jr. to express universal and timeless principles of justice—fireworks light up the night sky, compelling our gaze upward, beyond the mundane and often troubling world around us.
The myriad changes to American life since 1776—and since the beginning of 2020—have really occurred within the context of a much deeper and more far-reaching constant. When Frederick Douglass wrote “What to the Slave is the fourth of July,” in 1852, the institution of slavery had not yet been abolished. The 2020 Uprisings, fueled by the recent public executions of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, seem to echo Douglass’ skepticism.
Protestors are attempting to shine a light on the “moral blindness of the American people” just as Douglass was almost 170 years ago. But what we also see in these most recent protests is a much more inter-generational, inter-racial, and global group of citizens who are insisting that things must change. The aspiration for the ideal of justice remains a powerful force. Humanity, with its numerous afflictions and its aspirational strivings for a cure and a change for the better, is still with us as it has always been.
Stephanie Shonekan and Adam Seagrave are Co-Founders and Co-Directors of the Race and the American Story Project. Shonekan is Associate Dean of Arts and Science and Professor of Music at the University of Missouri. Seagrave is the Associate Director of the School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership at Arizona State University and Editor of Starting Points.