It’s Independence Day, a celebration of the declaration that inspired a scrappy people to rise in opposition to their colonial oppressors and establish a great nation.
On this, there is little controversy.
Beautifully written and lofty in its ideals, the Declaration of Independence not only establishes that “all men are created equal,” but beseeches people who have suffered “a long train of abuses and usurpations … to throw off” their government — not merely take a knee.
In fact, it says, “it is their right, it is their duty” to rebel.
I love the Declaration of Independence. In my lifetime of studying history, I’ve read it dozens of times.
Only last year, however, did I learn some of the back story of the American Revolution that mocks the very spirit of the Declaration of Independence on which it was waged.
I don’t know why teachers always glossed over it, but the war to escape British rule was not just a rejection of taxation without representation and all manner of other indignities, but a spectacular defense of the colonies’ right to maintain the institution of slavery.
It all goes back to a court case decided on British common law.
It seems that word of the decision in Somerset v. Stewart in England in 1772 got back to the colonies. The decision effectively freed a slave, James Somerset, who had been taken to England by his owner, Charles Stewart. The decision was interpreted as having set the course to abolish slavery in England’s colonies — or at least it legally fortified the abolitionist movement that was exploding in this Era of the Enlightenment.
By 1776, the Founding Fathers, many of whom owned slaves and all of whom profited handsomely from their labors, were sweating it. So, they had both noble and not-so-noble incentives for revolution.
The ignoble ones never saw the light of day in the Declaration of Independence. Apparently the first draft of the document, written by slaveholder Thomas Jefferson, actually included a paragraph denouncing slavery, but it was stricken by members of the Congress who sought to preserve their right to human trafficking.
While the British were hardly innocent in the establishment and exploitation of slavery, enslaved people in the Americas considered them the lesser of two evils, which is why an estimated 30,000 slaves (including several of Jefferson’s disgruntled holdings) escaped to become soldiers and spies for the Loyalist army.
It was, as historians say, our “dirty little secret.”
It was, in other words, the truth.
I’m not the only one who is bothered by this oversight and the whole steaming pile of biased propaganda that has passed for U.S. history in our schools for generations.
Remember learning about Onesimus, the Black slave who introduced inoculation against smallpox to America in 1721? Or Ruby Bridges, the first African American pupil to attend the all-white William Frantz Elementary School in Louisiana in 1960? Or Dr. Patricia Bath, the inventor of the first laser device used to treat cataracts? Or Frederick McKinley Jones, who invented refrigerated trucks? Or Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson, the brilliant women who enabled NASA to get space exploration off the ground?
Or the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre?
It’s no accident that few of us learned any of this in school. And it’s just plain wrong.
The young women who took on the Denver School Board in 2020 to demand that Black history be incorporated in the U.S. history curriculum in Denver Public Schools made this point plainly.
Black students shouldn’t have to travel 1,000 miles to the National Museum of African American History and Culture to learn about their heritage, they said. It belongs in their schools.
Their case was indisputable, and Board Vice President Jennifer Bacon promised them, “We will partner together to fix our curriculum.”
It was awesome.
Similar conversations have been happening across the country, and not just about the failures to teach the whole truth about Black history, but Native American, LGBTQ, women’s history and other overlooked aspects of our collective experience.
Then, there’s the parallel movement to raise awareness of injustice and inequity in such institutions as the military, the criminal justice system and government institutions.
A lot of us considered this proud progress toward the ideals of the Declaration of Independence.
A backlash was inevitable, though, and U.S. Rep. Ken Buck couldn’t resist the opportunity to grab the whip, introducing a bill in Congress to restrict funding for schools that dare to teach the uncomfortable truths of our legacy of slavery.
“An activist movement is now gaining momentum to deny or obfuscate this history by claiming that America was not founded on the ideals of the Declaration but rather on slavery and oppression,” his bill states.
He calls it the Saving American History Act of 2021.
C’mon, saving it from what? Does he think America can’t handle the truth?
On the 245th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, it’s past time to honor not just those truths dubbed “self-evident” but those that have been kept from us in a conspiracy of silence designed to uphold the tyranny of the powerful over the powerless.
If we’re sincere in our dedication to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” for all, we can’t be “deaf to the voice of justice.”
It’s right there in the declaration.
Diane Carman is a Denver communications consultant.
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