It begins with words that ought to be familiar to every American, regardless of political creed, the opening words to what has become our mutual heritage:
“When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them ….”
But it’s in its second paragraph that the Declaration of Independence gets down to business, giving us the words that have been literally etched into stone and into our history:
“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.”
With those words, Thomas Jefferson was writing a check that the young nation was not yet prepared to cash, and he knew it. A slaveowner himself, Jefferson’s original draft of the Declaration had contained a stunning denunciation of the slave trade. King George, Jefferson wrote, “has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither.”
However, southern colonies refused to go along with that language, and it was dropped in the interest of unity that the founders knew would be needed if their rebellion were to succeed. They recognized the high stakes, both for history and for themselves personally, and they knew that only by focusing on their commonality could the merchants of Massachusetts and the plantation owners and dirt farmers of Georgia achieve freedom.
In fact, as much attention as the opening words of the Declaration deserve, its closing words are undeservedly neglected. As Jefferson put it, just above the space where the Founders would later scrawl their signatures:
“ … we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honour.”
These days, the sentiment in that founding pledge, the sense that as Americans we are all in this together and that what unites us is more important than what divides us, has eroded significantly. We distrust, disrespect and even dislike each other, with bonds of friendship and family strained by politics. Jefferson, for one, recognized those strains and attempted to dispel them. “I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend,” he claimed in one letter.
But as with his anti-slavery rhetoric, Jefferson found it difficult to live up to his fine words. At one point, he and John Adams had been close friends and allies. It had been Adams who nominated the young Jefferson to write the Declaration; it was Adams and his wife Abigail who had consoled Jefferson at the loss of his wife. But by 1801, 25 years after pledging their lives, fortunes and honor to each other, politics and ambition had turned the two men into implacable, bitter enemies.
Yet that anger also did not last. After a dozen years of alienation, their friendship reignited, and both men came to treasure its resumption. As all Americans also ought to know, they died together, figuratively if not literally, both passing on July 4, 1826, on the 50th birthday of the nation they had helped create, together.