By David M. Rubenstein, co-founder & co-chairman, The Carlyle Group
July, 3 2020
By celebrating the Fourth of July, which the country has done annually since 1777, are we still celebrating independence from Britain or are we really celebrating the key principle outlined in the Declaration of Independence – that we are all equal, with the right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”?
And if we are celebrating that principle, are we closing our eyes to the fact that the Declaration’s principal author, Thomas Jefferson, was a slaveowner who had a forty-year intimate relationship with one of his slaves?
For years I have been interested in these questions – and that interest has accelerated with the ongoing race-related protests and re-examinations.
Over the past decade, I have purchased a dozen historic copies of the Declaration and placed them on public display around the country. My hope is that more Americans will delve deeply into the Declaration’s meaning – what it meant in 1776 as well as today. My theory is that when people see historic documents, as opposed to replicas or images on computers, they become more interested in the real meaning of these documents.
The Second Continental Congress approved on July 2, 1776, a resolution to declare independence from Britain. John Adams, the principal advocate of independence, wrote to his wife Abigail saying that in the future July 2 would be celebrated by Americans as the “most memorable epoch in the history of America.”
Right after the vote on July 2, the delegates to the Congress began debating the wording of a document – the Declaration of Independence – designed to explain to the American people, the British government, and to other interested people and countries, the reasons for the break with England.
The draft Declaration had been principally authored by the 33-year old Jefferson (accompanied to Philadelphia by two of his slaves).
For two days, the delegates debated Jefferson ’s handiwork. After the final text was approved, about 200 copies were disseminated to the public.
It wasn’t until August that the delegates signed the engrossed version of the Declaration. That faded version today resides in the National Archives in Washington, D.C.
So why do we celebrate the Declaration of Independence on July 4 rather than July 2, the date of the actual vote for independence? One theory is that the Second Continental Congress, in session on July 2, 1777, simply forgot about the date, realized its error a bit late, and organized itself to have a celebration two days later, on the 4th.
Whatever the reason, the country has celebrated the Fourth of July unofficially since 1777 and officially (by act of Congress) since 1941.
But, again, what are we celebrating?
In the early years of the Republic, independence from Britain was what the colonies felt was significant and worthy of celebration. The wording of the Declaration was not considered that significant – indeed, even Jefferson thought so little of his authorship that he did not publicly admit to his role for many years.
Today, independence from Britain, while important historically, is not foremost on the minds of Americans. What deserves and receives more attention is the Preamble of the Declaration: “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 sentence may be the best-known sentence in the English language. Why is that?
It is because the sentence has become the creed of America – our aspiration – and the creed of all disenfranchised people, in this country and around the world.
And that is what we are really celebrating on July 4th – the concept that, despite the allowance of slavery and the subsequent Jim Crow laws; despite the disenfranchisement of women until 1920; despite the inequities in social, political, economic, religious, gender and sexual preference suffered by so many in the country’s history to this day, the goal of equality and equal opportunity is what the country should be about.
So the fact that Jefferson, with his obvious flaws, which were shared by many Founding Fathers, unknowingly wrote the words that have become the creed of this country should not detract from the Declaration and its relevance to today’s challenges.
We should take comfort in the progress made since 1776 toward the creed; we should not take comfort that enough progress has been made toward the creed. And we should resolve that in celebrating the Fourth of July and the Declaration, we are really celebrating where the country should be heading – where everyone can feel and be equal in rights and opportunities – and hopefully will arrive someday soon.
David M. Rubenstein is a Co-Founder and Co-Executive Chairman of The Carlyle Group, one of the world’s largest and most successful private investment firms. Mr. Rubenstein co-founded the firm in 1987. Since then, Carlyle has grown into a firm managing $224 billion from 32 offices around the world.