This Fourth of July weekend comes at an extraordinary moment, with a country in upheaval — caught in the dual grip of a pandemic and a reckoning with the systemic racism that has been embedded since our founding.
This holiday typically celebrates our independence, but this year, we must confront the truths of our country’s failure to deliver on its original and most fundamental promise: equality. Since that promise was inscribed in the Declaration of Independence, we asked a number of Philadelphians to offer their visions for how that document might be revised or revisited to better deliver on its promise.
Our contributors include Anne Ishii of the Asian Arts Initiative, who takes on the Founding Fathers’ promise of unity. Lawyer and adjunct professor Michael Coard writes that “all men” were never equal in the United States—nor have we been granted “inalienable rights,” argues labor organizer Mindy Isser. While the Founders enshrined “the pursuit of happiness” among those rights, Inquirer columnist and WURD radio host Solomon Jones contends Americans have too long confused “happiness” with “property.”
Then two writers consider the paths to change laid out by the declaration: how current protests centering Black life are highlighting the destructive nature of our government, from historian Erica Armstrong Dunbar, and Americans’ right to “alter or abolish” sources of power that fail the people—including police, writes Harriett’s Bookshop owner Jeannine A. Cook.
To read their annotations, click on highlighted sections of the declaration excerpt below.
Opening paragraphs of the Declaration of Independence, annotated
In Congress, July 4, 1776
The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen United States of America,
When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.