The Declaration announced to the world that the American colonies were free and independent states. But this alone does not make the document or America revolutionary. What is revolutionary about the Declaration is not that a particular group of Americans declared their independence under particular circumstances but that they did so by appealing to a universal standard of justice: equality. What is revolutionary about America is that it is built upon a foundation of universal principles, not petty interests.
This is the core of American exceptionalism. As Matthew Spalding explains:
America is an exceptional nation, but not because of what it has achieved or accomplished. America is exceptional because, unlike any other nation, it is dedicated to the principles of human liberty, grounded on the truths that all men are created equal and endowed with equal rights.
All countries celebrate something that is theirs: The French celebrate Bastille Day, Canada has Canada Day, and Spain honors Christopher Columbus. But only America celebrates a set of principles that apply to all men.
The Declaration of Independence serves as a philosophical statement of America’s first principles. Just read the second paragraph. It affirms that all men are equal by nature and therefore have certain inalienable rights. Government is not in the business of granting rights, making everyone alike, or ensuring that everyone is happy. Operating by the consent of the governed, government has as its purpose to secure liberty and allow individuals to govern themselves and pursue their ambitions.
It is not uncommon to hear that these principles were fine for the 18th century but are woefully inadequate to meet the challenges of today. Just recently, in Time magazine’s cover story on the Constitution, editor Richard Stengel dismissed the Founders for being trapped in their own time and unable to speak to modern problems. Stengel’s allegations are nothing new. Since the early 20th century, academics, journalists, and even American Presidents (Woodrow Wilson, for example) have held the view, characterized by Calvin Coolidge, that “we have had new thoughts and new experiences which have given us a great advance over the [Founders], and that we may therefore very well discard their conclusions for something more modern.”
There is a finality to America’s principles, though. As one President insightfully explained:
If all men are created equal, that is final. If they are endowed with inalienable rights, that is final. If governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, that is final. No advance, no progress can be made beyond these propositions.
Today, read the Declaration of Independence to your family, neighbors, and friends at your barbecue. Allow its memorable phrases to inspire you to strive for liberty and to vindicate the principles of self-government. Brace yourself, though—the Declaration of Independence is revolutionary, because its principles are true.