In a speech on the Fourth of July, President Biden summarized his understanding of the American experiment: “I’ve long said that America is unique. Unlike every other nation on earth, we were founded based on an idea. We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all people are created equal, endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights—among them life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. And while we’ve never fully lived up to those words, we have never given up on them.”
Mr. Biden is right. This is the basis on which Abraham Lincoln, our greatest president, defended the Union and abolished slavery, and it is the only basis on which we can hope to build an enduring multiracial, multiethnic democracy.
Also offering an interpretation of America on Independence Day was Missouri Rep. Cori Bush, who wrote on Twitter : “When they say that the 4th of July is about American freedom, remember this: the freedom they’re referring to is for white people.” She is partly right. America’s fight for separation from Great Britain didn’t free the slaves, nor did the ensuing seven decades of our national independence—a failure that Frederick Douglass denounced in his magnificent 1852 oration, “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?”
But Douglass didn’t reject the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution. He embraced them because, he argued, they embraced him. In Douglass’s view, the problem wasn’t our principles or our institutions, but the practices that contradicted and undermined them. The equality described in the Declaration wasn’t only for white people; it was for everyone. The struggle was to make this principle a reality—for everyone. It still is.
This proposition marks, I believe, the essential dividing line between liberals and radicals today. Today’s liberals believe that we can use our founding creed, as have previous generations, to dismantle the remaining obstacles to equality, while radicals believe that we must revise what they see as the flawed and obsolete principles of our founding documents.