The Declaration is the idea of America that unites us
President Joe Biden proclaimed, “America is an idea — unique in the world,” in his first address to a joint session of Congress on April 28. About a month later, on Memorial Day, he invoked the “idea of America” again. Heard repeatedly throughout his presidential campaign and his administration, Biden’s “idea of America” is that same one we celebrate every July 4 — the ideals and promise of the Declaration of Independence.
Biden has remained consistent and straightforward: The nation was built on the idea that we are all “created equal.” The words should sound familiar; every American likely has heard them. They’re adapted from the Declaration, which the president has called “the greatest idea in the long history of humankind” from “one of the great documents in human history.”
The Declaration’s idea is “who we are,” Biden announced along with his candidacy back in April 2019. For the past two years, his idea of America has been presented as the one articulated by Thomas Jefferson in 1776 that “all men are created equal.” But Biden has also stressed the largely forgotten concept of “honor” — the final pledge of “sacred honor” that bound the signers. The Declaration’s idea of America is the way towards bipartisan agreement. It created a nation in 1776, so why can’t it unite us today?
Perhaps much is due to Biden’s speechwriter and Jefferson biographer, Jon Meacham, who borrowed the phrase “the soul of America” from his book title — although maybe it’s adapted from the “Good Will Hunting”-famous historian Gordon Wood’s “The Idea of America.” But Biden has been too consistent to suggest he doesn’t believe in this idea. Biden built his campaign on Jefferson’s vision — and he won.
Before the American Revolution, the 13 colonies essentially functioned as separate entities. The idea of America was the colonists’ beliefs that united them before Lexington and Concord — many of the exact words and concepts appear in 1774 in the Declaration and Resolves of the First Continental Congress. “The Revolution was effected before the War commenced. The Revolution was in the Minds and Hearts of the People,” John Adams wrote. Yet, it is the Declaration and Jefferson’s words that remain the idea’s best expression.
Today, politicians on both sides remain quick to champion it. In 2018, future Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) tweeted out portions of the Declaration after using it against capitalism. In May, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) placed it among “the basic tenets of American history.” There is common ground here, even if interpretations differ. Figures from Martin Luther King Jr. to Ronald Reagan to Elizabeth Cady Stanton have all used the Declaration’s ideals and promise to champion their causes.
It’s easy for critics to point out the Declaration’s flaws. Its concept of equality did not apply to slaves, women or unpropertied men. Its categorization of Native Americans is unacceptable. Perhaps worst of all: its principal author and many of its signers were slaveholders. And it’s not a new revelation. English author Samuel Johnson complained in 1776, “we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers” of slaves.
Today, amidst ongoing history wars over how our past is taught and remembered, the National Archives, the home of the Declaration, is forced to grapple with its legacy. An April 2021 report from the Archivist’s Task Force on Racism expressed concern over the Declaration’s “reverential, quasi-religious treatment” and display, which alongside the Constitution and Bill of Rights, “does not adequately reflect a full history of the founding of the United States.” One critic in the report said, “these documents represent the entrenchment of chattel slavery, denial of rights to women, and triumph of European colonists over the original inhabitants.”
The committee’s recommended solution was admirable: Place the Reconstruction Amendments, the 19th Amendment, and the Civil Rights Act in a position of “equal honor and reverence.” Yet, these later documents all sprang from the Declaration. This should not be contextualized away. The Declaration should not be presented as only “soaring rhetoric.” President Lyndon B. Johnson purposely signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into law on July 2 (the date the Declaration was approved), and compared this new document to the Founders’, “they pledged their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor not only to found a nation, but to forge an ideal of freedom.”
Regardless of the criticism, the Declaration and its statement of liberty, equality and “unalienable” rights were revolutionary, radical, and “unique” in world history. Even those left out realized it. In Boston in 1777, Black revolutionary veteran Prince Hall adapted it for a “Petition of Freedom,” which sought liberty for the enslaved based because “they have in common with all other men a natural and unalienable right to that freedom.” From the Americas to Europe to Asia to Africa — governments, revolutionaries, abolitionists, female suffragists, and civil rights activists all embraced the document from the 18th century through today. That is the story that can’t be lost before the 250th anniversary of its signing in 2026.
Partisan battles are raging over history teaching, critical race theory, and America’s “true founding” (1776, 1619, 1620, or even a state-centric founding like 1621 or 1836). But only one year birthed the U.S., the first nation of its kind. The Declaration represents the nation’s origins and an idea of America that is flawed in execution but pure in spirit. That doesn’t mean we should hide the Declaration’s limitations, but it gives us a common starting point for national discussion.
As Biden reminded Congress, the “unique” idea of America is “who we are. We cannot walk away from that principle.” Some may scoff at this as a “mythmaking” “fairy tale” or dismiss it as triumphalist “Dad History,” but can we can no longer speak hopefully on July 4? For if we as a nation can’t unite around “the idea of America” that all people “are created equal,” we have bigger problems than what schools teach or what documents we enshrine.
Craig Bruce Smith is a historian and the author of “American Honor: The Creation of the Nation’s Ideals during the Revolutionary Era.” Follow him on Twitter @craigbrucesmith. All views are the author’s.