Independence or Dependence Day?

Steven Hayward

July 1, 1997

There are few more powerful symbols of American unity than the Fourth of July. There have been few times in our nation’s history when it has been more important to recall the ground of our unity as American citizens.

Each year on the Fourth we celebrate Independence Day, marking the signing of the Declaration of Independence and the end of England’s rule over the United States. But more than just our independence from foreign rule, the Fourth is also intended to remind us of the wellsprings of our democratic principles — especially the cornerstone of the Declaration, the principle that “all men are created equal.”

Abraham Lincoln put the matter clearly in his famous “House Divided” speech: “The assertion that ’all men are created equal’ was of no practical use in effecting our separation from Great Britain; and it was placed in the Declaration not for that, but for future use.”

Today is one of those times of “future use” Lincoln had in mind.

Today America finds itself increasingly divided, not just into two houses (slave and free in Lincoln’s day), but into many houses, based on race, ethnicity, and gender. It is fashionable for thinkers on both Left and Right to sneer at the Declaration of Independence, just as slaveholders sneered at it in the 1850s. Some on the Right think the Declaration is responsible for introducing the radical egalitarian levelling that plagues modern politics. This represents a misunderstanding of the principle of equal rights.

The error of the Left is worse. Most on the Left reject the Declaration because they think its authors only meant to include white males among the “equal.” In doing so, liberals are resurrecting the very argument made by slaveholders before the Civil War. Somehow this fact does not make them uncomfortable.

Again, Lincoln had the right view of the matter. When speaking of the many ethnic immigrants who had come to America since the Founding, Lincoln said: “If they look back through this history to trace their connection with those days by blood, they find they have none, they cannot carry themselves back to that glorious epoch and make themselves feel that they are a part of us, but when they look through that old Declaration of Independence they find those old men say that ’We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,’ and then they feel that that moral sentiment taught in that day evidences their relation to those men, that it is the father of all moral principle in them, and that they have a right to claim it as though they were blood of the blood, and flesh of the flesh of the men who wrote that Declaration, and so they are.”

Lincoln’s view is crucial to recall because of the stark contrast is offers to that of his contemporary successor in the White House, Bill Clinton, and the many thinkers on the scene today for whom the president speaks. President Clinton’s recent speech on race relations in California came on the anniversary of Lincoln’s famous “House Divided” speech, but Clinton’s opinion is unfortunately is much closer to the view of Lincoln’s great opponent, Stephen Douglas.

President Clinton has joined the side of the argument that thinks our racial or ethnic identity is the proper ground of our rights, and not our equality as human beings. Both the Supreme Court, and the voters of California through Proposition 209 (the California Civil Rights Initiative) have rejected this view. But if the American people should come to accept the group-rights view, we might as well change the Fourth of July to “Dependence Day,” since our rights would be dependent on which racial or ethnic group we belong to. This is a sure recipe for division among us, and the erosion of the idea of common citizenship.

Clinton has signaled his intention to make race relations the focus of the remainder of this second term in office. But it looks as though Clinton will do for race relations what he did for health care reform, the major initiative of his first term that ended in disaster. The difference is that the health care reform debacle was mostly a disaster for him personally; his crusade in favor of group rights will be a disaster for the country.

Steven Hayward is an Adjunct Fellow at the John M. Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs and a Senior Fellow with the Pacific Research Institute, a San Francisco-based think tank.