As Ethan J. Kytle and Blain Roberts noted in a 2018 article for The Atlantic, the celebration of the Fourth by black Americans became particularly fervent after the Civil War, to the chagrin of many whites, who understood that the celebrants embraced a vision of the Declaration that championed the idea of equality. Some white-run cities have instituted restrictions to prevent black communities from celebrating the holiday.
All of the major black leaders or commentators on black life in the United States from the 18th century to the present day have used the Declaration to analyze and criticize the status of black Americans.
Benjamin Banneker, repeated Jefferson’s own words by writing to him in 1791, when he was Secretary of State, urging him to help improve the status of blacks. The Passionate of 1829 by David WalkerCalling the Colored Citizens of the WorldProposed the Declaration as a rebuke to the oppression of slavery and racial prejudice. The Undying Speech of Frederick Douglass “What the slave is July 4th? ”brilliantly exposed the hypocrisy of a nation whose founding document announced a creed it did not respect.
And, of course, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., in his “I have a dreamPresented the Declaration as a “promissory note” that the United States had not yet paid to its black citizens.
Historians, myself included, often speak of the need to “historicize” the Declaration, to insist that non-historians recognize that the document was written at a specific time and for a specific purpose. Fixation on the language of the preamble as having any bearing on what was happening or happening at any time other moment in history, favors error. The “broken promise” trope is based on an illusion.
But, fortunately, the Declaration does not belong solely to historians. Like all good writing, words took on meaning outside of the context in which they were written.
The notion of equality evoked in the Declaration has become a guiding principle of American life. Indeed, Jefferson, at the end of his life, understood that his words on the subject had taken on a broader meaning. They even influenced General Gordon Granger and thus played a role in Juneteenth.