Despite our history, we’re a nation that’s a work in progress


When was the last time you read the Declaration of Independence? Not the long list of grievances against the insufferable King George III, but the preamble.

It’s short enough for the American attention span. The language that laid the foundation of one of history’s most influential documents was, well, revolutionary.

But what we declared to be self-evident truths 237 years ago this week were no sure thing, then or now. Reread the promises we made to ourselves. They were intended to be the bulwark of our liberty.

Boy, do we have a long way to go. So did the colonial revolutionaries in the late 18th century. The patriots who drafted and debated the Declaration outlined what should be the ideals of a newborn nation — not the way it was in 1776.

They couldn’t assert that all their fellow colonists were equal, or evenly apt to enjoy the inalienable rights they put on parchment. But they could forge the core values of a country and vow to uphold them — someday.

Fast forward to 2013, where attainment of a more perfect union remains an elusive goal. Political division is the norm. Social injustice prevails. All Americans are not endowed with the same inalienable rights.

As a nation, we collectively take a step forward to advance equality — as in the recent Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage. Then we take a collective step backward — as in the Supreme Court ruling on voting rights.

In other words, observed Yale law professor J.M. Balkin, we, the children of a revolution, are a work in progress. Like our imperfect forefathers, we struggle to hold fast to our foundational moorings.

We strive for what could be. But we’re not there yet. The Declaration is an unfulfilled promise, Mr. Balkin said in an article he wrote, “The Declaration and the Promise of a Democratic Culture,” on Yale’s Web site.

“It declares that all people are created equal; yet many people still live under the yoke of inequality,” he said. “It says that all people are endowed by their Creator with inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; yet these rights are alienated every day by the rich and powerful.

“It says that to secure these rights,” he went on, “governments are instituted, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed; yet people still live under unjust governments, unjust laws, and unjust social conditions to which they have never consented.”

So why bother embracing the lofty promises that couldn’t be redeemed at the nation’s start and can’t be reclaimed now? Simple. They are the reason we exist, the heart and soul of our national identity.

As Abraham Lincoln reflected, the immortal truths professed in the Declaration are “applicable to all men and in all times.” They were integral to the life and times of the 16th president, who was dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Through his devotion to the Declaration, he moved his countrymen to see what was worth fighting and dying for. He was passionate that the ideals endure the crucible of the Civil War.

“I know of nothing in history more touching, especially when we consider that this devotion caused his sacrifice,” eulogized Massachusetts Sen. Charles Sumner in June, 1865. But Mr. Lincoln was committed to the declarations that give meaning to our national narrative.

On his inaugural trip to Washington, with several Southern states preparing to secede, Mr. Lincoln stopped at Independence Hall in Philadelphia, where the Declaration was signed. He paid homage to it.

“All the political sentiments I entertain have been drawn, so far as I have been able to draw them, from the sentiments which originated in, and were given to the world from, this hall,” he said.

He brought the principles of the Declaration to bear on the national conscience by establishing a relationship among the founding generation, his own, and all generations yet to come. He understood what the Framers intended.

“They meant to set up a standard maxim for free society,” Mr. Lincoln said, “which should be familiar to all, and revered by 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 everywhere.”

The timeless promise of free people that we celebrate is always worth another reading, and another stab at redemption.

Marilou Johanek is a columnist for The Blade.

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