Gordon S. Wood
is the Alva O. Way university professor and professor of history emeritus at Brown University, and a member of the Jack Miller Center's Academic Council
The Declaration of Independence is the most important document in American history, bar none. Not only did it legally create the United States, but it infused into our culture nearly all of our important ideals and values - our "inalienable rights," including "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness," and especially our belief that "all men are created equal."
Of course, no one in 1776 realized how important the Declaration would become. Much to his later regret, John Adams thought the important decision had been taken on July 2, 1776, when the Congress voted for independence. "The Second Day of July," he told Abigail on that day, "will be the most memorable Epocha in the History of America." He believed that it "would be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great Anniversary Festival. It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more."
Adams was so busy at this time, serving on two dozen committees of the Continental Congress, that he was probably relieved that Thomas Jefferson was assigned the task of drafting the Declaration. Jefferson never made any claim of originality. The object of the Declaration, he later recalled, was "not to find out new principles, or new arguments, never before thought of, not merely to say things which had never been said before; but to place before mankind the common sense of the subject, in terms so plain and firm as to their assent, and to justify ourselves in the independent stand we are compelled to take." It was, he said, simply meant "to be an expression of the American mind."
What was most important to people in 1776 was not the preamble but the end of the document, which declared the United States to be an equal nation in the world of nations, free to wage war, make treaties, and do all the other things that independent states could do.
Today we take this declaration of nationhood for granted and thus it is no longer relevant for us. But the ideas and values concerning rights and equality contained in the preamble are very much alive and relevant for us. Indeed, they are the ideas and values that hold our diverse society together.
The person in our history who first saw the significance of the Declaration as the main adhesive for a diverse people was Abraham Lincoln. When Lincoln said "all honor to Jefferson," he paid homage to the one Founder who he knew could explain why the American Revolution was important and why Americans were a single people. Drawing on Jefferson, Lincoln saw the United States as a republican nation in a hostile world of monarchies, a grand experiment in self-government, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
And that proposition was what linked Americans to the Revolution and made them a single people. Half the American people, said Lincoln in 1858, had no direct blood connection to the Founders of the nation. These German, Irish, French, and Scandinavian citizens had either come from Europe themselves or their ancestors had, and "finding themselves our equals in all things," had settled in America.
Although these diverse ethnicities may have had no connection in blood with the revolutionary generation, they had, said Lincoln, "that old Declaration of Independence," with its expression of the moral principle of equality to draw upon.
This moral principle, which was "applicable to all men and all times," made all these different peoples one with the founders, "as though they were blood of the blood and flesh of the flesh of the men who wrote that Declaration." This emphasis on liberty and equality, he said, was "the electric cord . . . that links the hearts of patriotic and liberty-loving men together, that will link those patriotic hearts as long as the love of freedom exists in the minds of men throughout the world."
Lincoln knew better than anyone why the Declaration of Independence had become the most important document in American history.