It's always very ironic when the man who probably knows less about history than anyone alive, i.e. Donald Trump, does a historically themed event. Do you suppose he knew that one of the presidents on Mt. Rushmore behind him had actually been the one opposing the Confederacy? If told, could he have guessed which one?
The good thing about the July 4th weekend's festivities, though, is that we have dramatically laid out in front of us the contrast between our two main presidential candidates. Trump has given us the most ugly, hate-filled, racist version of his dark vision for America. Biden's response was a more progressive vision of America, one that builds on our country's best historical ideals.
Now, in this historic moment, when the Black Lives movement has made us more aware of our nation's failures and systemic racism than ever before, our nation's history is under scrutiny like never before. And it's about damn time. But we also need to understand the arc of that history, which is not all oppression and hatred, but is resistance and hope, too.
We know that the Declaration of Independence was written by hypocrites. There is no excusing, no justifying, who those men were. It is perhaps the most profound mystery in all of history that these slave owners and elitists would write these words:
"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among men, deriving their just power from the consent of the governed."
It was hypocritical and even outrageous that such a collection of men wrote such words in their Declaration, but they did. And beginning our nation's history with those two sentences, they gave the progressive people and movements in America's history our narrative and touchstone. The American story had those words embedded in its very opening lines.
Frederick Douglass used those lines to batter against the walls of slave power. "Would you have me argue that man is entitled to liberty? That he is the rightful owner of his own body? You have already declared it...."
Abraham Lincoln made those words the foundation of his entire political argument in the Lincoln-Douglass debates and the Gettysburg Address. He began his Gettysburg Address with the famous words: "Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal." In that speech, Lincoln successfully made the case to his fellow Americans that those principles were at heart of the American story, from the beginning, in spite of our ugly history which led to the Civil War.
And when the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech, he once again referenced the Declaration and Lincoln's interpretation of it:
"When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."
Conservatives throughout American history have always rejected those words, sometimes overtly, sometimes just by ignoring them. Trump represents the latest ugly symbol of that rejection of the Declaration's words. Those who have progressive values need to remind people of the American story, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all of us are created equal. I was glad to see the Biden campaign do this well. Here's another great example contrasting the ugliness of Trump's American carnage vision with the American story that starts with those amazing words. It is called, appropriately enough, The Declaration.