Wednesday, July 30, 2014
Loading...





Learning the American language

This remains one of the most unlikely stories of history. Because Jefferson inserted an abstract truth into a bloody, fratricidal struggle, Lincoln could claim the mantle of the Founders during a bloodier struggle, essentially refounding the country on the best interpretation of its principles.


Posted on July 4, 2014 at 12:32 p.m.

WASHINGTON — On July 9, 1776, when the Declaration of Independence was first publicly read to the citizens of New York — "We hold these truths to be self-evident ... " — they responded by decapitating an equestrian statue of George III, cutting off his nose and placing his head on a spike outside a tavern. Metal from the statue was later turned into 42,088 bullets, intended, by one account, "to assimilate with the brains" of the British.

Americans have always taken their John Locke and natural law with a side of ferocious nationalism. The Declaration's shining vision of universal rights was introduced, after all, in the midst of a vicious war of attrition. The document itself accuses the king of inciting mass atrocities against civilians. Gen. George Washington was convinced that the British had sent prostitutes infected with smallpox into his Cambridge camp in December of 1775 — the 18th-century version of WMD.

The "glorious cause" split the fledgling country roughly into thirds — patriots, the uncommitted, and loyalists (who were sometimes roughly treated). The Civil War was not the first American conflict that divided families. William Franklin, Ben's illegitimate son, was the last royal governor of New Jersey. His father disinherited him.

And the ideals of the new nation were immediately rendered hypocritical by the presence of about 600,000 enslaved human beings. The British took full (and appropriate) propaganda advantage. "How is it," said Samuel Johnson, "that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of Negroes?"

Yet one of those slave-owners, Thomas Jefferson — bookish, retiring, possessing what John Adams called a "happy talent for composition" — injected a philosophic statement into a protest movement: "We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."

America could have been declared independent from Britain without all men being declared equal. The various "injuries and usurpations" relating to the traditional rights of Englishmen would have been enough. But something more ambitious and universal got planted.

The seed lay dormant for decades. At first, Americans celebrated their independence each year without paying much attention to the Declaration. "See your Declaration Americans!" vented abolitionist David Walker in 1829. "Do you understand your own language?" In 1857, Abraham Lincoln compared the document to "old wadding left to rot on the battlefield after the victory is won." But he suspected that the ideals of the Declaration had been placed there "for future use."

And Lincoln himself used them. While Lincoln had little respect for Jefferson as a political figure, he praised him for "the coolness, forecast and capacity to introduce into a merely revolutionary document an abstract truth ... and so to embalm it there, that today, and in all coming days, it shall be a rebuke and a stumbling block to the very harbingers of reappearing tyranny and oppression."

This remains one of the most unlikely stories of history. Because Jefferson inserted an abstract truth into a bloody, fratricidal struggle, Lincoln could claim the mantle of the Founders during a bloodier struggle, essentially refounding the country on the best interpretation of its principles. After a further century of African-American suffering, striving and demand, Lyndon Johnson could sign the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and hand a pen to Martin Luther King Jr. Slowly, awkwardly, America was learning to understand its own language.

This story justifies a mix of realism and idealism. Our advance toward the ideals of the Declaration has been protracted, violent and often hypocritical. And yet: All men are created equal. The phrase is enough to cause a catch in the throat.

Recently I met with a group of democracy activists from Burma. During lunch, I sat next to a young man who appeared college-aged. I found that he had already spent five and a half years in prison for organizing student protests. The idea of equality still drives people to amazing, almost irrational sacrifices. It remains the most disruptive, hopeful force of history: All men are created equal. Just a whisper of the words is enough to cause humble people to sacrifice everything; enough to cause tyrants to fear.

This is not, in the end, just an American language. Shortly before his death, Jefferson reflected that the Declaration was "pregnant with our own and the fate of the world." A difficult delivery, no doubt. But long expected.

Michael Gerson's email address is michaelgerson@washpost.com.




 Belhaven, N.C., Mayor Adam O'Neal, left, walked to Washington, D.C., to draw attention to state leaders who won't accept new Medicaid funding under the Affordable Care Act.

Posted on July 29, 2014 at 5:42 p.m.
 Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., wipes his face as he speaks at the Catholic University of America, in Washington, Wednesday, July 23, 2014. Trying to win forgiveness for pushing a failed immigration overhaul, Rubio is rushing to woo social conservatives ahead of a potential 2016 White House run. While Rubio has consistently held conservative positions on abortion and gay marriage, his emphasis now is an effort to find support among social conservatives who have yet to settle on a favored candidate in the presidential campaign that is in its nascent stages.

Posted on July 29, 2014 at 4:23 p.m.
 In this June 6, 2014 file photo, Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., gestures as he speaks during a gala prior to the start of the Virginia GOP Convention in Roanoke, Va.   Ryan proposed a new plan July 24 to merge up to 11 anti-poverty programs into a single grant program for states that he said would allow more flexibility to help lift people out of poverty, in a speech to the American Enterprise Institute.

Posted on July 28, 2014 at 5:04 p.m.
Back to top ^