January 10, 2012
To My Fellow Citizens:
Next Monday will mark the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. With the opening of his monument on the National Mall, Americans now have a day and a place to honor King’s public life and legacy.
We can benefit ourselves on this occasion by taking a moment from our busy lives to call to mind King’s most famous address, the 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. It has many memorable thoughts and phrases, but all of them are framed within the context of the opening lines, which declare:
we have come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. 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.
King’s anchoring of his speech in the principles of the Declaration of Independence would make perfect sense to the Declaration’s author. In the last significant letter Thomas Jefferson wrote less than two weeks before his death on July 4, 1826, he talked about the Declaration and his hope for America. Jefferson had been invited to come to Washington, D.C., for a 50th anniversary reunion with the last remaining signers of the Declaration. He had to decline because of his poor health, but the invitation gave him one last chance to explain the significance of the Declaration:
May it be to the world [he wrote] what I believe it will be, (to some parts sooner, to others later, but finally to all), the Signal of arousing men to… assume the blessings and security of self government…. All eyes are opened, or opening to the rights of man. The general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view the palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born, with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of god. These are grounds of hope for others. For ourselves, let the annual return of this day forever refresh our recollections of these rights, and an undiminished devotion to them….
For Jefferson, the principles of the Declaration were not just the historical foundation of our break from Great Britain. They were the moral foundation for our future, which was to be the story of the unfolding and deepening of the Declaration’s principles in American society and politics. America, Jefferson hoped, would become more and more “Declarational” over time.
But that would only be possible if we continued to re-learn the “self-evident” truths on which our country is built. Those truths need to be learned and re-learned by every generation, precisely because they are “self-evident.” This familiar phrase does not, as we are usually inclined to think, mean “obvious.” It does not mean “innate”: you don’t just know a self-evident truth by being alive. If we did, how could we explain the fact that no society in history had been fully based on those truths until 1776?
“Self-evident” means something that contains the proof of its truth within itself. It is something that is obvious once you have been enlightened to it. For example, the familiar Pythagorean theorem in geometry (“a” squared + “b” squared = “c” squared) is a self-evident truth: you understand it once you’ve studied it in geometry class. Before then, it is incomprehensible. After that, it is clear and easy.
The truths of the Declaration are like that. Our Founders were enlightened to them by experience and the study of great thinkers, and we have been enlightened to them by learning and re-learning them in each succeeding generation. That is both hopeful and fearful. It is hopeful because it means that anyone can in principle learn these truths; they are not limited to a particular time, place, or culture. They can be discovered and implemented by anyone at any time and in any place. It is fearful because every generation must be enlightened to them or they will be forgotten even by those who once knew them.
Abraham Lincoln understood these facts. Inside the Memorial in front of which King spoke are the famous words of the Gettysburg Address. In that address, Lincoln began by invoking 1776, when “our fathers brought forth, upon this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that ‘all men are created equal.'” Lincoln called equality a “proposition,” rather than a “self-evident” truth because in the years before and during the Civil War, many people had forgotten or denied the principle of equality; some even called it a “self-evident lie.” For Lincoln, the great purpose of the Gettysburg Address and of the Civil War itself was to restore in the public understanding the self-evidence of those truths—to restore the promise of freedom for all. That is what he meant when he called for a “new birth of freedom”: freedom was born in the Founding and had to be re-born during and after the war.
One hundred years after Lincoln’s efforts, Americans still faced the challenge of restoring the American promise of freedom. As King said, he had come to redeem the “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.” Like Jefferson and Lincoln before him, King called us to remember and re-learn the meaning of our Founding principles. This is something each generation needs to do, if we are to preserve and perpetuate the great American promise of freedom to all. So this coming Monday, let’s honor the American life and legacy of Martin Luther King by using the day to “refresh our recollections” of these principles and restore our “undiminished devotion to them.”