Tomorrow, throughout this nation, peoples will gather from various histories and experiences of the American Experiment. Without question there will be much fanfare and a cacophonous celebration of the nation’s history. Heart-stirring and sometimes ill-conceived prose, poetry, and reflections on the meanings of “freedom” and “independence” will most assuredly mark the occasion.
However, on the eve of this Independence Day I came across a document in my office that commanded my attention. The document is of course The Declaration of Independence—the engrossed and signed version. Yet accompanying the Declaration of Independence signed by the Continental Congress on July 4th, 1776, there is a second column, the Fair Copy in Thomas Jefferson’s Hand. Many of our citizens are unfamiliar with this document. It varies from the document with which most are acquainted in minor and significant ways. In addition to the sufferings and “oppressions” of which the signers of the document sought redress from Great Britain, Jefferson, penned with his own hands, these brilliant words;
“…he has waged cruel ward against itself, violating its most sacred of life & liberty in the person of a distant people, who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. This piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the Christian king of Great Britain. Determined to keep open a market where MEN should be bought & sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or restrain this execrable commerce: and that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished dye, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them by murdering the people upon whom he also obtruded them; thus paying off former crimes committed against liberties of one people, with crimes which he urges to commit against the lives of another.”
These words, written by Jefferson (who owned slaves) do not find their way into the engrossed and signed version of the Declaration of Independence. Yet, the failure of the nation to grapple with this legacy of the institution of slavery and the principalities and powers of white supremacy and racism haunt us to this very day. So too, do Jefferson’s words regarding the indigenous population:
“…he has endeavored to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers the merciless Indian savages, whose known rule of warfare is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes, & conditions of existence.”
The clarity found in the “revised edition” of the Declaration of Independence displayed side by side with the copy written in Jefferson’s hand reveal how easily we can rationalize the enslavement of one people, the genocide of another while at the same time wax eloquent on the nature of freedom and independence.
It is believed that Jefferson’s original finished draft was delivered to the Continental Congress on July 1st, 1776. However, these statements were deleted and other changes were made to the text. Fortunately, Jefferson had made several copies that highlighted the sections that had been changed or deleted.
As we mark this historical day we would be well-served by reading the Declaration of Independence—a document that describes the nature and horrors of Empires (even under a Christian King) and to read the version written in Jefferson’s own hand. There is one additional distinction between the two documents—it is in my opinion a distinction that makes all the difference in the world.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with INHERENT & inalienable rights..”
These God-given rights, in Jefferson’s view, are Characteristic, Intrinsic, Essential, Integral, Innate, Inborn, Natural, and In-Built. If freedom and independence are God-Given (and they are) then no one can take them away. Neither can one bestow them upon another—to believe that we can do this is to have succumbed to false supremacist ideologies. It is this type of freedom and independence for which people will still fight for, die for, and live.
And, as you read the Declaration of Independence perhaps you can also find time for the words penned by the great poet Langston Hughes.
Let America Be America Again
By Langston Hughes, 1902 – 1967
Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.
(America never was America to me.)
Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed—
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.
(It never was America to me.)
O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.
(There’s never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)
Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?
And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?
I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek—
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.
I am the young man, full of strength and hope,
Tangled in that ancient endless chain
Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!
Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!
Of work the men! Of take the pay!
Of owning everything for one’s own greed!
I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.
I am the worker sold to the machine.
I am the Negro, servant to you all.
I am the people, humble, hungry, mean—
Hungry yet today despite the dream.
Beaten yet today—O, Pioneers!
I am the man who never got ahead,
The poorest worker bartered through the years.
Yet I’m the one who dreamt our basic dream
In the Old World while still a serf of kings,
Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true,
That even yet its mighty daring sings
In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned
That’s made America the land it has become.
O, I’m the man who sailed those early seas
In search of what I meant to be my home—
For I’m the one who left dark Ireland’s shore,
And Poland’s plain, and England’s grassy lea,
And torn from Black Africa’s strand I came
To build a “homeland of the free.”
Who said the free? Not me?
Surely not me? The millions on relief today?
The millions shot down when we strike?
The millions who have nothing for our pay?
For all the dreams we’ve dreamed
And all the songs we’ve sung
And all the hopes we’ve held
And all the flags we’ve hung,
The millions who have nothing for our pay—
Except the dream that’s almost dead today.
O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be—the land where every man is free.
The land that’s mine—the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME—
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.
Sure, call me any ugly name you choose—
The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people’s lives,
We must take back our land again,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!
Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain—
All, all the stretch of these great green states—
And make America again!
Happy Independence Day!