Far fewer Americans celebrate September 17th (I don’t know anyone, do you?). Fewer still recognize it as Constitution Day—the date on which the Constitution was signed in 1787. No one identifies 1787 as the year our nation was born.
Yet the way some people talk—or scream—you’d think the only document of importance to the United States was the U.S. Constitution. One party always accuses the President of the United States of violating or even “shredding” the Constitution when he does something they don’t like.
But if you could have the chance to meet someone who knew nothing about America, and you had the chance to allow them to read just one document—either the Declaration or the Constitution—to help them understand what America is about, which one would you choose?
The truth is that the Constitution is not the bedrock of America. It’s our most basic source of law, yes, but it’s not our most holy and sacred text. It’s just where we get the rules from. So, to mix religion and politics, if the Constitution is the Book of Leviticus, the Declaration is the Book of John.
Yes, I mean to say that the Declaration of Independence is America’s most important founding document—not the Constitution.
That’s because, unlike the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence is an aspirational document, positing the U.S. government as an entity on a trajectory towards the ultimate goal of America as it should be, but recognizing that we're not there yet.
That’s how Abraham Lincoln saw the Declaration. It’s why he was willing to muddy the waters of what is and isn’t Constitutional in order to bring the U.S. government closer to the Declaration’s most central truth—that all men are created equal.
At the time of the 1857 Dred Scott decision, which held that African slaves were not protected under U.S. law and were not citizens, the Constitution allowed for slavery. There was no equal protection or due process clause that could be cited for a black man to defend his Constitutional rights to freedom; he had none under the law.
Yet Lincoln saw that the Declaration plainly told us that slavery was not legitimate in America, even if it was legal in the United States. Lincoln was fully aware of the complexities of Thomas Jefferson’s character, and of the fact that Jefferson owned slaves even though he detested the institution. It might seem a rebuke to Jefferson, then, that Lincoln would say,
“He who would be no slave, must consent to have no slave. Those who deny freedom to others, deserve it not for themselves; and under a just God, can not long retain it.”
But in the same 1859 letter, Lincoln called Jefferson’s principles the “definitions and axioms of a free society,” adding thus:
“All honor to Jefferson—to the man who, in the concrete pressure of a struggle for national independence by a single people, had the coolness, forecast, and capacity to introduce into a merely revolutionary document, an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times, and so to embalm it there, that today, and in all coming days, it shall be a rebuke and a stumbling block to the very harbingers of reappearing tyranny and oppression.”
While Lincoln certainly understood the Constitution to be the law of the land, he clearly saw the Declaration of Independence as the truth of America. And in that truth, he saw a clear repudiation of human slavery and the policies of the U.S. government towards it.
Even Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens recognized that this was the meaning of Jefferson’s words—he just thought Jefferson was wrong. From Stephens’ speech on the new (Confederate) Constitution:
“Jefferson, in his forecast, had anticipated [slavery] as the ‘rock upon which the old Union would split.’ He was right. But whether he fully comprehended the great truth upon which that rock stood and stands may be doubted. The prevailing ideas entertained by him and most of the leading statesmen at the time of the formation of the old Constitution, were that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically. It was an evil they knew not well how to deal with, but the general opinion of the men of that day was that, somehow or other in the order of Providence, the institution would be evanescent and pass away. This idea, though not incorporated into the Constitution, was the prevailing idea at the time . . . Those ideas however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of the races. This was an error.”
In fact, the Constitution that Stephens was speaking on during that very speech, the Constitution of the Confederate States of America, was nearly exactly the same as the U.S. Constitution with a few minor changes. That only underscores how inefficient the U.S. Constitution alone was as a document that could've guided us to greater freedom and equality. Certainly, under both Constitutions at the time, slavery was legally permissible.
But the Confederate States of America didn’t have a Declaration that set equality on par with liberty (if not as a pre-requisite for it). The United States did. Lincoln recognized that the Declaration of Independence pointed to America’s destiny—a destiny that the Constitution of the time did not allow us to advance towards.
So, because of the Declaration, not the Constitution, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation.
And while the Declaration of Independence, our core truth, will never be amended because of the Constitution, the Constitution was amended to make room for the 13th Amendment and the abolition of slavery—in order that it may come more closely in line with the promise of the Declaration.
Lincoln recognized that this aspirational document would continue to be fulfilled beyond the abolition of slavery, however. He likely understood that future generations would, through the lens of that sacred document, recognize its truth even more fully in that they would comprehend the equality of peoples whom Lincoln and Jefferson never even considered.
And so, women were granted the right to vote. The doctrine of separate but equal was shot down, and our schools were integrated. The Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act both passed. Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was repealed, and gay men and women can now serve their country without fearing that others might find out who they are.
Even in 2012, the United States is still heading towards America—the achievement of the true America our most important and sacred text describes. Our Constitution and our laws are no more than the vehicle we use to traverse across the long arc of history that, slowly but surely, is bending more and more towards full justice. May we always be eager to more completely embrace the core truth of America, even as we take oaths to laws that ever remain several steps behind.
Happy 4th of July, everyone!