The 4th of July Is Such A Lie

On July 4th, 1776, the Congress of the 13 United States ratified the Declaration of Independence. In it, they unanimously affirmed:

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. 

In one of Frederick Douglas’ iconic speeches:
What to the slave is the fourth of July?
He wrote:
What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? He answered: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim.

Abraham Lincoln made it the centerpiece of his policies and his rhetoric, as in the Gettysburg Address of 1863. Since then, it has become a well-known statement on human rights, particularly its second sentence:

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.

This has been called “one of the best-known sentences in the English language”, containing “the most potent and consequential words in American history”. The passage came to represent a moral standard to which the United States should strive. But have we?

The apparent contradiction between the claim that “all men are created equal” and the existence of American slavery attracted comment when the Declaration was first published. 

Thomas Jefferson had included a paragraph in his initial draft that strongly indicted Great Britain’s role in the slave trade, but this was deleted from the final version. 

Thomas Jefferson, our 3rd president, as well as many other presidents and founding fathers, was himself a prominent slaveholder, owning hundreds of slaves.

Referring to this seeming contradiction, English abolitionist Thomas Day wrote in a 1776 letter:

“If there be an object truly ridiculous in nature, it is an American patriot, signing resolutions of independency with the one hand, and with the other brandishing a whip over his affrighted slaves.”

With the antislavery movement gaining momentum, defenders of slavery found it necessary to argue that the Declaration’s assertion that “all men are created equal” was false, or at least that it did not apply to black people.

During the debate over the Kansas–Nebraska Act in 1853, for example, Senator John Pettit of Indiana argued that the statement “all men are created equal” was not a “self-evident truth” but a “self-evident lie”.

In 1846, Dred Scott, an enslaved black man whose owners had taken him from Missouri, which was a slave-holding state, into the Missouri Territory, most of which had been designated “free” territory by the Missouri Compromise of 1820 filed a lawsuit to gain his freedom and to keep his family together. 

In his lawsuit, he claimed that because he had been taken into “free” US territory, he had automatically been freed, and was legally no longer a slave. Scott sued first in a Missouri state court, which ruled that he was still a slave under its law.

The case took 11 years to make it to the Supreme Court, where the justices ruled 7-2 against him. He was freed a year later by his new owner, under pressure from her husband. However, unfortunately, he died a year later in 1858 of tuberculosis.

Dred Scott was listed as the only plaintiff in the case, but his wife, Harriet, played a critical role, pushing him to pursue freedom on behalf of their family. She was a frequent churchgoer, and in St. Louis, her church pastor (a well-known abolitionist) connected the Scotts to their first lawyer. 

The Scott children were around the age of ten at the time the case was originally filed, which was the age when younger slaves became more valuable assets for slave owners to sell. To prevent the family from being broken up, Harriet urged Dred to take action.

Imagine if your children were taken away from you, never to be seen again, and sold at age ten because that was the prime age for getting the best price. There were no background checks done on buyers. Nor were there any child protection agencies to prevent sexual abuse.

On March 6, 1857, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney delivered the majority opinion. Taney ruled that:

Any person descended from Africans, whether slave or free, is not a citizen of the United States, according to the U.S. Constitution.

The Court had ruled that African Americans had no claim to freedom or citizenship. Since they were not citizens, they did not possess the legal standing to bring suit in a federal court. As slaves were private property, Congress did not have the power to regulate slavery in the territories and could not revoke a slave owner’s rights based on where he lived.

“There are two clauses in the Constitution which point directly and specifically to the negro race as a separate class of persons, and show clearly that they were not regarded as a portion of the people or citizens of the Government then formed,” Taney argued.

He admitted in his ruling that the fourth of July was a lie because the Declaration of Independence did not apply to all people only white people.

One person who was publicly upset with the Dred Scott decision was Abraham Lincoln, who was a rising figure in the newly formed Republican Party. The case was a focal point of the famous debates between Lincoln and Stephen Douglas in 1858.

The Scott decision increased tensions between pro-slavery and anti-slavery factions in both North and South, further pushing the country towards the brink of civil war.

The newspaper coverage of the court ruling and the 10-year legal battle raised awareness of slavery in non-slave states. The arguments for freedom were later used by President Abraham Lincoln. The words of the decision built popular opinion and voter sentiment for his Emancipation Proclamation and the three constitutional amendments ratified shortly after the Civil War: the Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments, abolishing slavery, granting former slaves citizenship, and conferring citizenship to anyone born in the United States and “subject to the jurisdiction thereof”.

So, this country created by free men and our founding fathers, proclaimed all men are created equal except the ones we own and keep as slaves. The Declaration Of Independence, therefore, is based on a lie. Consequently, so is the fourth of July. 

Until we live up to our broken promises of equality and justice for all, why are we celebrating? 

Imagine if you could steal land from Native Americans without any compensation, then get slaves to build and farm these properties to improve their value, you could get rich and accumulate wealth very quickly. Then pass that wealth on to your heirs, generation after generation. This is why we have such a huge income gap between white and black families.

The income of a white family in America today is 10 times that of a black family. The income inequality is so bad that a non-college-educated white man makes more money than a black man with a college degree. 

This is why many believe reparations are due to the descendants of slaves. We built this country for free.

Speaking of reparations. Our generous and thoughtful government believed it their moral duty to pay reparations. However, they paid them to the slave owners for the loss of their property, after the abolition of slavery.

We must live up to our founding principles and make them true in life not just in rhetoric. We must start by fixing the racial disparities in housing, education, wages, hiring and recruitment, access to credit and venture capital, the criminal justice system, and the privilege to be treated equally and granted the same rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Then we can honestly and faithfully celebrate the Fourth of July.


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