On the “Luther and the Reformation” trip, I visited the German Historical Museum in Berlin with the tour group from the Synod. It’s an overwhelmingly large and comprehensive museum, full of remarkable things. One of the ones I most like to visit when I am there is pictured above – a copy of one of the first editions of the Declaration of Independence, printed in Philadelphia two or three days after the signing of the original. The difference? This one is in German.
There were enough German-speaking people in Philadelphia in 1776 to make it important that they read this in their own language. The fledgling American nation was born diverse, with large populations of people of color and languages other than English. Vast areas of it in 1776 were still inhabited solely by native peoples.
The Declaration’s language is inspiring and aspirational, committing its signatories to a new sort of nation based in equality and liberty, and with the common good of all citizens as its basis. We are still working on that, all these years later. The Declaration was just a starting point, not a destination. We were not yet in 1776 the nation it describes, and we have still not become it fully.
There is a wonderful video going around (an advertisement for a genealogy company) showing the familiar painting of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, but instead of the old 18th century figures, the people in the new picture are their modern descendants, and mostly people of color. We have come so far, and still have work to do.
Today’s America is likely the most diverse nation that has ever existed. But it was also more diverse in 1776 than the Declaration acknowledges, with its silence on slavery and its demonization of the “merciless Indian savages” who still lived on most of its future territory at that time. And obviously, even among the European-ancestry settlers, there were many who couldn’t read the Declaration in the language in which it had been written.
Let us, on this anniversary of the Declaration’s signing, commit ourselves to being a nation in which people of all races and faiths can be at home, committed to the same protections and rights for all, defending and offering justice to all to the same degree, and supported by one another in our lives, happiness. and prosperity – as neighbors and fellow-citizens. And let us not rest where this liberty in unity is threatened or denied, and resist any who would divide us merely to rule us more effectively.
For the lesson of the Declaration is that an empowered people, united by common principles of compassion and fairness, can indeed change the world, even in the face of our own imperfection and the limits of our vision. To be such a people should be our common goal; our loyalty should be to that ideal.