On July 4, 1776 members of the Second Continental Congress, meeting in Philadelphia, adopted the final draft of the Declaration of Independence, one of the most stirring, democratic and egalitarian statements of the modern age.
Four days later the first public readings of the Declaration were held in Philadelphia's
Independence Square. It was soon read in other cities and met with cheers and celebration. However, while the Revolutionary War raged, July 4 celebrations were modest.
When the war ended in 1783, July 4 became a holiday in some places. In Boston, it replaced the date of the Boston Massacre, March 5, as the major patriotic holiday.
The custom eventually spread to other towns where the day was marked with processions, speeches, picnics, games, military displays and fireworks. But it was only in 1941 that Congress declared July 4th a federal holiday.
The Declaration of Independence is a revolutionary document. Not only did it declare the thirteen colonies independence from the British Monarchy, but it challenged the accepted structures of inequality that had previously governed the affairs of mankind.
For centuries human beings had lived in highly structured, hierarchical societies. Economic and political powers were the inherited birthright of a privileged few. Most people were subjects, slaves, indentured servants, and peasants, destined to serve their superiors, the lord, the monarch, and the priest. As Aristotle wrote, “Some men are born to rule and some to be ruled.”
The Declaration of Independence challenged the idea that all men were created unequally by asserting the opposite: “…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 document turned our understanding of the world upside down and laid the basis for an expansive and inclusive democracy.
The defeat of the British led to the establishment of a new government that restricted citizenship to white male property owners. But the Declaration inspired labor republicans, country democrats, abolitionists, suffragettes, freemen and civil rights activists who used the words to extend the rights of citizenship more broadly.
The Declaration lists a series of grievances against King George, the British monarch who ruled the thirteen colonies. While it is well know that the patriots opposed taxation without representation, being forced to house and feed the occupying British troops, and the British monopoly control of commerce, it is rarely mentioned that restrictive immigration policies were another important grievance. Yet the document condemns King George for preventing the immigration to the colonies, “obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither….”
The nation the Declaration inspired had no laws restricting immigration until the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed in 1882. As the Statue of Liberty proclaimed, we were a nation that welcomed the world’s hungry and poor yearning to breathe free. Only after WWI were quotas imposed on immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe.
In the Twenty-First Century, undocumented workers who do our nation's hardest, most dangerous and dirtiest work and their children, now known as dreamers, have picked up where the Patriots left off, asserting that they are human beings with rights denied. Their dream is the same as earlier generations of immigrants from Ireland, Poland, Germany, Italy, Russia and elsewhere to work hard, provide for their families and contribute to America’s great experiment in democratic governance.
The wave of deportations being carried out today- over 450,000 people were expelled last year- is contrary to the spirit of the Declaration of Independence and its vision of a new, free self-governing nation.
So as we celebrate this weekend, take a moment to remember that two hundred and thirty-seven years ago thirteen sparsely populated Atlantic outposts of farmers, servants, slaves and merchants declared that all men were created equal with inalienable rights. Since that day freedom loving people from Selma to Tienanmen Square, from Brazil to Arizona have been inspired by the patriots’ struggle to create a nation of free and equal citizens.
There would be no more fitting way to celebrate July 4th this year than for Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reform with a path to citizenship for our nation’s latest wave of immigrants.