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July 4: Declaration of Independence

As Lincoln said, it protects not injustice and cruelty, but their overcoming.

Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson, painted by Gilbert Stuart (Flickr - Metal Cris).

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On July 4, 1776, the representatives of the thirteen American states, meeting in Philadelphia, unanimously proclaimed the Declaration of Independence of the United States of America. It was 246 years ago today (editor's note: 2024 marked the 248th anniversary), therefore, that the representatives of the American people created a new country. It had been a year since the revolution had begun and there were another seven years to go before it would be recognized by the former metropolis. What we celebrate on July 4th is, therefore, the proclamation of an idea expressed in the second paragraph of the Declaration:

"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...."Second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence

The monumental political edifice to be built thereafter, that nation "conceived in freedom and consecrated to the proposition according to which all human beings are created equal," as he said Lincoln, will be built on this foundation: the idea that the human being is endowed by his Creator with rights that he cannot renounce and that cannot be taken away from him. And that of these rights, three fundamental ones stand out: the right to life, the right to liberty and the right to the pursuit of happiness, which neither Jefferson, author of the draft of the Declaration, nor the other representatives assembled there, ever considered a right.

Historically, this idea is heir to the Enlightenment, which thinks of the human being as a free and rational entity. It is from this first rationality that the right to the pursuit of happiness is deduced, which is the same as saying the autonomy of the human being to advance on the path of what he considers his own progress. It is also derived from Christianity and Judaism, by the affirmation of 1) the equality of all and 2) a human being created by God: only one, in his image and likeness -we guess-, and not as a blind instrument of an unpredictable and capricious will.

The Declaration of Independence of the United States of America.

If we return to the first paragraph of the text, which justifies the rupture with the English metropolis for having breached the previous pact, we find that the Declaration of Independence reflects the ideas of the English philosopher John Locke. We continue, therefore, in the political reflection of the Enlightenment, with its conception of society as a pact. From this tradition and these ideas, the idea of the nation as the result of a contract between those who constitute it will also be born. Underlying this is a very European, and in particular Anglo-Saxon, tradition of self-government. As is the Jewish tradition of the covenant or alliance between the Lord and his peopleThis covenant incorporated a promise of salvation and made the Jewish people witnesses, before the rest of the peoples, of the presence of the living God, a reality already evoked in the first covenants that committed the Puritans who arrived at the promised land from the east coast of North America to found a society where they could practice their faith in freedom. It will be the Constitution, promulgated in 1787, which clearly expresses these basic ideas, outlined here with a very succinct exposition of principles and a brief but forceful definition of the human being.

Before returning to the list of grievances justifying the breaking of the pact that united the colonies with the metropolis, the Declaration alludes to the future government of the nation that has just seen the light of day. Based on the principles enunciated above, the implementation of a regime that will guarantee the fulfillment of these principles is foreseen: a liberal regime designed to ensure the security and freedom of its members.

What will come next will be, of course, a construction that will have to take into account the historical, cultural and economic realities of each moment. The nation based on freedom and equality It will practice an imperialist expansion, it will do away with the ways of life -and the very lives- of the Native Americans, it will accept slavery and then segregation, it will practice discriminations of all kinds, some of which have only been corrected a few years ago... And yet the existence of these injustices, often brutal, in the construction and expansion of the new nation does not detract one iota from the validity of the principles enunciated in the Declaration of Independence.

Conversely, one might say: the more flagrant the injustice and cruelty that the Americans have engaged in, the more the effectiveness of the principle enunciated in the Declaration - and later in the Constitution-. The Declaration therefore protects, as Lincoln said, not injustice and cruelty, but their overcoming. It is the enforcement of the Declaration in the political life of the nation that has made it possible to correct and put an end to them. And only the validity of the Declaration and the ideas it expresses guarantee that correction and improvement - the progress to which the text alludes when speaking of "the pursuit of happiness" - can be undertaken and come to fruition.

U.S. history has not always been exemplary. Even so, it retains the unique and exceptional character of having emerged from the affirmation of the The validity of an idea with an unparalleled capacity for integration, and which was a challenge for the liberal democracy that was about to be founded on it: that of fulfilling the definition of the human being according to which we are all equal and subject to imprescriptible rights. And those who proclaimed the independence of the American states were firmly, and proudly, anchored in a time and a culture, but they knew how to give birth to an idea with universal appeal. That value it had from the very beginning is still valid today and attracts people from all regions of the planet, from all cultures, religions and languages.

José María Marco, historian; author of La nueva revolución americana.