The Declaration of Independence, whose signing in Philadelphia in 1776 we celebrate today, has never been the supreme law of the land. Yet it expresses, perhaps even more than the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, the guiding purpose of the American experiment.
"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 . . . " Much of our history has turned on the struggle to give meaning to the revolutionary doctrine of equal rights under law on which this most historic of documents rests.
The founders of our nation certainly knew they were embarking on an unprecedented project when they launched the fledgling American democracy. They recognized that its very conception represented a challenge to tyranny the world over. America was to be a beacon of hope for all time for peoples who dreamed of freedom.
Not even they could foresee how quickly their idea would spread -- the French Revolution, which convulsed the old order in Europe, followed the American by a mere 13 years. More than 200 years later the Declaration remains a touchstone for peoples from China and the former Soviet republics to South Africa and a whole developing world of new nations whose names didn't even appear on the maps of 18th century statesmen.
The republic of the founders was an imperfect construction, however, as even they recognized. "Indeed, I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just," wrote Thomas Jefferson. The lofty ideals of the Declaration, inscribed in the law of the Constitution and Bill of Rights, left unresolved the most vexing contradiction of the American idea: How a nation dedicated to human liberty and equality could at the same time countenance slavery. It would take a great civil war, a great leader of a later generation, Abraham Lincoln, and another century of struggle after that to begin to fulfill the promise of Jefferson's towering document.
In "Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words that Remade America," author Garry Wills suggests that Lincoln's Gettysburg Address extended the meaning of the Civil War -- and the meaning of American democracy itself -- by projecting them onto the larger philosophy of the Declaration's premise that "all men are created equal." Lincoln "revolutionized the Revolution, giving people a new past to live with that would change their future indefinitely," Mr. Wills writes. Today the idea of equality remains a noble yet largely unfulfilled ideal. Still, we are closer to it today than ever before in our history. America is still in the making. Perhaps that is the most compelling reason for continuing to celebrate the document that inspired the quest.