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A furor has erupted in New Jersey regarding what I would have thought
was a simple and forthright suggestion – that school children begin
their day with a brief reading of the opening paragraphs of the
Declaration of Independence.

I confess that I still find it hard to understand how any American
can suggest that there is something wrong with teaching and impressing
upon our children the powerful importance of the central tenets of the
Declaration of Independence. Apparently, however, there is need to
recall again the blessings that this great text represents, and the
implications of any attempt to remove it from the consciousness of the
American people.

If anything can be certain in history, it is that without the civic
creed summarized in the opening of the Declaration, the United States
would not exist as a free country. The Declaration gives the reasons
for which the War of Independence was fought and expresses the
motivation that enabled that war to be won. Since that day, the
Declaration has been an indispensable foundation for a series of
important struggles for justice in America, including of course the
abolition of slavery. Without the Declaration, I believe, these
struggles would not have been won.

How can a single document be so decisive in the practical affairs of
men? This really shouldn’t surprise us. While crude wielders of power
may think otherwise, ideas are far from impotent in the struggles of
life. Ideas, and the words that express them, are actually the dominant
force in shaping the destiny of human beings.

How were uncountable masses of people held enthralled by handfuls of
people through most of history and in most places in the world? It was
not, typically, by the use of overwhelming force. Small groups of
people never have enough force to overwhelm the masses. Masters succeed
only when they enchain the minds and spirits of those subject to them.
Around the Jefferson Memorial is inscribed a famous quote of
Jefferson’s: “I swear eternal enmity against every form of tyranny
over the mind of man.” This recognizes the crucial insight into
the real source of enslavement, that slavery is not a matter of physical
shackles, but of spiritual, mental and psychological chains.

Only if this insight is kept fresh can we prevent human beings from
being enslaved once more, because just as the power of the enslaver is
not chiefly physical, so must the defense of liberty be much more than
physical. The chains of slavery are decisively broken wherever
individual human beings realize that they are free by right, regardless
of their physical condition. It is hard to enslave a man if he believes
– understands — that he is not. Would-be masters invoke many implicit
arguments against those they would subdue – differences of status,
background, wealth, education, race and strength. But none of this will
convince a man that he is a slave once he understands that he possesses
a dignity that does not depend on the power and opinion of other human
beings, but on the will of the Author of nature, whose power is beyond
all human power.

This insight into the source of human dignity provides the only truly
effective motivation for the downtrodden to fight for their liberty. A
people aware of the justice of its claims to liberty will find the
courage do what is necessary no matter what the threat. This is not
merely a pious imagination — it is a statement of the actual course of
American history. Every significant struggle for justice in America,
from the very beginning, including the fights against slavery, for civil
rights, for women’s rights and for workers’ rights, was led by people
who pointed to the Declaration of Independence and challenged the nation
to do what was right by those principles. The Declaration has been the
source of the courage that was required to fight those battles.

Given the Declaration’s history of inspiring high-minded and
effective struggles against injustice, we should look with pointed
suspicion on the forces in our society today who are maneuvering to
destroy our understanding of, and our allegiance to, the principles of
the Declaration.

Sometimes they argue that the hypocrisy of the Declaration’s
assertion of human equality is shown by the fact that its principal
author, Jefferson, was a slave owner. In fact, however, even this shows
the power that the truth can have if we are willing to speak it.
Jefferson, and with him the leading lights of the Founding generation,
had the decency to acknowledge what few in the course of human history
before that era had ever acknowledged — that slavery was wrong.
Speaking this truth was the first step toward changing the life of
America — just as acknowledging the principles of justice is always the
first step toward doing justice. This is the glory of the Founders –
despite having the power and opportunity to replicate in America the
despotisms of Europe, they instead embraced and proclaimed a new
understanding of politics. That understanding acknowledged in human
nature itself, formed by God in a decision beyond the reach of human
power or rejection, the basis for a universal claim to dignity and
rights.

This understanding was indeed inconsistent with the fact of slavery
– and over time, the true understanding of politics triumphed over the
stubborn fact of slavery. The struggle against slavery was motivated by
a profound sense of the contradiction between slavery and the basic
American principle of human equality. Without the wise compromises of
the Founders, too easily dismissed as mere hypocrisy, the decades that
followed would not have led to an enormous crisis of conscience. But it
was precisely this crisis that eventually made the nation face the
injustice of slavery in order to uproot it from the national soul.

Nothing in the course of human history has proved to be harder than
actually establishing and preserving a society based on a practical
acknowledgment of our equal human nature under God. This nation
represents one of the great fruits of that struggle — but it will not
survive if we don’t remember the moral principle that has been our
strength.

Are we still raising young people who will be emboldened by the truth
of human equality to fight for their liberty? Will they resist the
temptation to give in to the cowardly behavior that allows tyrants to
reign? Will they have the courage to resist tyranny — particularly
when it offers the kind of comfortable servitude that our era of
material abundance makes possible?

If we intend to keep alive in our children the knowledge of the true
source of their dignity, we must be sure that their minds are formed in
the light of the Declaration. Recitation of the key passages of the
Declaration is a simple — and, one might even say self-evident — step
toward this goal. The suppression of this practice is an equally
self-evident attempt to prevent the formation of young citizens capable
of principled action in the preservation of our liberty.

The result will be not simply a slide toward servility, but a
corresponding slide toward brutality — for, as we become a people fit
to be slaves, there will arise a new class of Americans eager to assume
the role of master. Here, too, the Declaration provides the crucial
preventative medicine. Contained in the Declaration are the seeds of an
ethic of responsibility, for its acknowledgement of our obligations to
God leads to the acknowledgement of our obligation to one another. The
doctrine of dignified human equality under God provides the basis,
therefore, for shaping character in our civic culture in such a way that
we eschew being serfs and subjects but at the same time refuse to be
bullies and despots. A generation raised on the Declaration will insist
we owe to our fellow citizen the same respect that we demand from him.

The Declaration is not merely a powerful tool for spiritual and moral
motivation — it is probably an irreplaceable one. Those who propose
removing what has been the Gibraltar of American resistance to tyranny
don’t even bother to propose a viable substitute. I think it would be
the greatest folly in the world to wander away from such a blessing on
the advice of those who are capable of seeing nothing but racism or
sexism in a document that has done more than any other merely human
creation to end both. The opponents of the use of the Declaration in
our schools are consistently people who are quite facile in expressing
their resentments but offer the blueprint of no other edifice of human
spirit, intellect and moral understanding which they would put in the
place of the great principle they urge us to abandon.

The schoolchild who reads the Declaration, thinks about it and is
moved to give it his assent in however simple a form, is a symbol of the
American citizen of any age or intelligence. The full life of
citizenship in America is a life lived in reflection on the truths of
our founding, continued assent to those truths and continued resolve to
act in light of them. This is the challenge of liberty. Rather than
following the advice of the dim bulbs who would snuff out such
reflection near the beginning of life, we should strive to renew the
practice of ordering the education of our young so that it will strike a
spark of rational citizenship in each of them, every day. The torch of
liberty is, in fact, composed of these sparks. It will burn brightly
only if we continue to take care to cultivate its humble beginnings in
the awakening consciences of our young.

Banish the Declaration from our schools? I don’t get it. I can
understand why the slave masters didn’t want to permit their property to
read. But I can’t understand why a free people would keep from its
children the very truths that make — and can alone keep — them free.

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