The tenderest words in American political history were cut from the document they were to have graced.
It was July 1, 2 ,3 and 4, 1776, in the State House in Philadelphia. America was being born. The Continental Congress was reviewing and editing the language of the proposed Declaration of Independence and Thomas Jefferson, its primary author, was suffering the death of a thousand cuts.
The tensions over slavery had been wrenching, terrible, and were resolved by brute calculation: to damn or outlaw it now would break fragile consensus, halt all momentum, and stop the creation of the United States. References to the slave trade were omitted, but the founders were not stupid men, and surely they knew their young nation would have its date with destiny; surely they heard in their silence the guns of Fort Sumter.
Still, in the end, the Congress would not produce only an act of the most enormous human and political significance, the creation of America, it would provide history with one of the few instances in which a work of true literary genius was produced, in essence, by committee. (The writing of the King James Bible is another.)
The beginning of the Declaration had a calm stateliness that signaled, subtly, that something huge is happening:
“When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to separate.”
This gave a tone of moral modesty to an act, revolution, that is not a modest one. And it was an interesting modesty, expressing respect for the opinion of the world while assuming the whole world was watching. In time it would be. But that phrase, “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind” is still a marker, a reminder: We began with respect. America always gets in trouble when we forget that.
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