The scandal of the Declaration

On reckoning with the legacy of America's loftiest document and its slave-owning author

Thomas Jefferson.
(Image credit: Illustrated | Getty Images, iStock)

July 4, 1776, is not the date on which the colonies achieved their independence from Great Britain; that was September 3, 1783. It is not the date on which the war began; that was April 19, 1775. It is certainly not the date that we became the United States — that wouldn't be until the adoption of the Constitution, which was created on September 17, 1787, was ratified by a sufficient number of states on June 21, 1788, and became effective on March 4, 1789. It wasn't even the date on which the Continental Congress resolved unanimously to separate from Britain; that was two days earlier, on July 2, 1776.

No, what we celebrate on July 4 are the words written to justify that resolution to the world, which were agreed to formally on that day. The words that constitute the Declaration of Independence.

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