Published on Wednesday, July 4, 2001 in the Miami Herald
The 'Course of Human Events' is Now
by Hodding Carter III
Let us begin with a little deconstruction. Let us concentrate on all that was wrong about the Declaration of Independence and the nation it helped create. Let us acknowledge the imperfections of its authors, the petty nature of many of their differences and their blindness -- or deliberate evasion -- when it came to the many sins for which they were responsible.
To what were they blind or indifferent, when not totally committed?
Not much: Merely the oppression as slaves of the African Americans brought to this land against their will; merely the forcible displacement and/or genocidal eradication of the Native Americans whom they encountered when they arrived as -- fatuous phrase -- ``discoverers'' of the New World; merely the consignment to second- or third-class status of all women.
To and about all of this the Declaration was silent. Indictment rendered. Verdict: Guilty.
Was the Declaration of Independence the divine writ of an Olympian God made manifest in a handful of male colonial political geniuses on the rim of a vast continent?
Of course not. It was something far more important. It was, in a permanently imperfect world, a permanent incitement to change -- evolutionary or revolutionary -- but always to change. It declared enduring war against the notion of a settled civilization of settled questions and a settled, stratified order of humanity.
Viewed from one perspective, the Declaration was precisely what it said it was: a declaration of independence from Great Britain adopted by the Continental Congress in the second year of a losing war against the mother country.
But while some revisionists would leave it there, their interpretation of the Declaration's import would be no more complete than that of those who once blandly overlooked the imperfections of its signatories.
What is important, what is enduring about the Declaration, is contained within some 80 words. They are the basis for the creation of the ``more perfect union'' promised just 13 years later in the Constitution. They are a legacy whose value sometimes seems better appreciated in that great mass of mankind outside freedom's ambit than by those within it.
Do words matter? These did, as they forever destroyed the moral basis of tyranny, slavery and subjugation of a supposedly lesser sex no less than of a supposedly lesser race or creed.
The consequences of those words have been playing themselves out too slowly, but inexorably. The encrusted truths of millennia, practices and pretexts as old as civilization itself, all the centuries of inertia and all the received wisdom about the proper ordering of power and powerlessness among peoples -- all at risk, all in play, all called to account.
Which brings it down to now, down to us. We are the beneficiaries, but we cannot be inert.
Some of us are frustrated and stymied and enraged by the multiple failures of contemporary America. Some of us have grown all-wise and cynical and knowing about all the ways this democracy does not work for all the people. And not one of us is absolved or can be absolved from the responsibility to make good on the full meaning of those 80 words. Ours is a nation of ideas. Not of a single religion, or race, sex or national origin. Not of an all-wise government.
Those 80 words call us into action, in the here and now. They rebuke complacency. They demand response. They make a lie out of inevitability, however it is defined. They strip us of the right to passivity in the face of injustice. They demand our participation in the never-ending struggle for the achievement of an equality more meaningful than a slogan.
The ``course of human events'' is now. The necessity is ours. The Declaration of Independence is, as always, the road map and the compass.
Excerpted remarks by Hodding Carter III, president of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, delivered on May 24 to People for the American Way.
Copyright 2001 Miami Herald