On September 2, 1945, in a grassy field in Hanoi known as Ba Dinh Square, a fifty-five-year-old man wearing a worn khaki tunic and white rubber sandals gave the speech that launched the Vietnam War. The man, who would be long dead when that war finally ended, was Ho Chi Minh, and the speech that he gave was, essentially, the American Declaration of Independence in Vietnamese.
He did not just begin by quoting its most famous words—“All men are created equal. They are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, among them are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness”—his whole speech was copied from the Declaration. Ho enumerated the ways that a colonial power (France) had abused the rights of the Vietnamese, and he ended with another echo of Thomas Jefferson: “The entire Vietnamese people are determined to mobilize all their physical and mental strength, to sacrifice their lives and property in order to safeguard their independence and liberty.”
It was part of Ho’s intention, when he gave the speech, to solicit the support of the United States in driving the French out of his country. (That plan did not work out so well.) But Ho was also a student of political history, and he knew that he was not the first leader of a national liberation movement to appropriate the Declaration of Independence. In fact, according to the historian David Armitage, Vietnam was something like the fifty-fifth country to do so. The Declaration created, as Armitage puts it, “a new genre.” It provided a template for claims of national sovereignty that, in the years since 1776, has been used by more than a hundred countries, from Flanders (1790) and Haiti (1804) to Bulgaria (1908), Finland (1917), and Ireland (1919) to Abkhazia (1992) and Eritrea (1993).
The Declaration is both an appeal to reason and a justification of force. The appeal to reason rests on the “all men are created equal” part. Today, we read that as a statement about race and gender equality, but that is not what Jefferson meant. He meant that no man is above the law: governors must govern by the consent of the governed. But Jefferson’s language was broader than his intention, and it allowed Frederick Douglass to point out, in his famous Fourth of July oration, in 1852, that, though Americans had declared before the world that all men are created equal, “yet you hold securely in a bondage . . . a seventh part of the inhabitants of your country.” In the long run, and thanks in great measure to the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment, which mandates “equal protection of the laws,” and the Nineteenth Amendment, granting women the vote, the equality ideal of the Declaration was incorporated into our Constitutional structure. But what most attracted the the countries that produced their own declarations of independence was the Declaration’s justification of force. When you have diagnosed that a boot is on your neck, Jefferson says, you have the right to throw it off by any means necessary. And that right is God-given.
And so, on December 24, 1860, the state of South Carolina passed a Declaration of Secession, which included ample reference to the Declaration of Independence, and, a little less than four months later, Rebel forces attacked Fort Sumter, a federal installation in Charleston Harbor. The legislators of South Carolina did not believe that all men are created equal. They did believe that their rights were being suppressed (including their right to suppress others) and that they therefore had the right to overthrow their oppressors.
And so, on the principle that what goes around comes around, on May 15, 1967, the Black Panthers published their manifesto, the Ten-Point Program. The tenth and final demand, bearing the title “We Want Land, Bread, Housing, Education, Clothing, Justice, and Peace,” consists entirely of a quotation from the Declaration of Independence, ending with the words “When a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object, evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government, and to provide new guards for their future security.” The Panthers did believe that all men are created equal. But they also believed that, if push were to come to shove, they, too, had the right to overthrow their oppressors.
Still, it is a valuable feature of our country that we do not mark its birth by a celebrating a triumph of force. On what day did the Revolutionary War begin? When did the British surrender at Yorktown? What date was the Treaty of Paris signed? Unless you make your living teaching American history or playing “Jeopardy,” you probably don’t know the answers to these questions. But you do know when the Declaration of Independence was written.
The Declaration did not create a nation. It created only the idea of a nation, and that idea, as its scope and meaning have evolved over time, is what we annually pay our respects to. All who live here are equal. All who live here have the same rights. None who lives here is above the law. In some years, loyalty to those principles seems like something we can take for granted. This year, on the two hundred and forty-third birthday of our founding document, not so much.
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