The 4th of July isn't the anniversary of the Constitution, it's the anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. The Constitution set up our government, and Americans tend to revere it as the immortal symbol and spirit of our country, much as Japanese people traditionally saw the Emperor. But in many ways, the Declaration of Independence is the more important document. By declaring when it's OK for a populace to abolish their government and form a new one, the Declaration necessarily appeals to powers that are higher than any Constitution, king, or emperor. The powers it appeals to are 1) People power, 2) God, and 3) moral ideals.
The ideals of the Declaration are many, but the basic ones are laid out in the second sentence:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.This is the sentence everyone can quote, and with good reason. This sentence is the core idea of the United States as a nation-state.
When you think about it, it's pretty incredible that people - especially people in the 18th century - would put a moral statement as their reason for founding a new nation. This sentence makes it clear that the United States was created as fundamentally not just a group of people and the plot of land they live on. It was a nation created to advance a set of moral ideals.
Of the ideals in that sentence, the most dramatic, the most memorable, and the most astonishingly radical is "all men are created equal". I feel like if the idea of the United States of America were stripped down to its very essence, these are the five words that would remain.
What the heck does "all men are created equal" even mean? Does it mean that they're equal in some measurable characteristic, like height? Obviously not. In fact, "equal" obviously doesn't mean - can't mean - anything that can be proven or disproven with facts. The founders could not possibly be using the words "self-evident truth" to mean "measurable fact", so they must be using them to mean something else. "All men are created equal" must be a prescriptive statement - a statement of opinion, a codified expression of emotion.
It's a statement about how society ought to treat people. It says, basically, that society shouldn't treat people differently based on the conditions of their birth. There's really nothing else it could mean.
"All men are created equal"! What an astounding thing to say! What an astounding thing for a bunch of slaveholders to say! And what an astounding thing to base a country on! Centuries later people from other countries still boggled and balked at it. It's a statement that turns almost everything about traditional human society on its head.
Now, lots of people make sweeping moral statements that they or their descendants completely ignore. But this one has proven to be astonishingly powerful down through the centuries. Again and again "all men are created equal" is something Americans have proven willing to fight for. We fought the Civil War to enforce the ideal of "all men are created equal" (no, slavery was not the only reason the Union fought, but it was really what the conflict was all about). George Washington knew from Day 1 that this was going to happen. In 1797 he told a guest that "I can clearly foresee that nothing but the rooting out of slavery can perpetuate the existence of our union, by consolidating it in a common bond of principal (sic)."
The rest of American history involves a long list of episodes in which people fought for the principle of "all men are created equal". It wasn't too long before it became obvious that "men" meant women as well - the women's rights and feminist movements clearly spring from the idea that "all [people] are created equal". Civil rights was another battle, and just recently, the triumph of gay marriage was another. The fight against police racism is an ongoing example. The U.S. is not always the first to implement policies that confer greater equality (though we're usually one of the first), but I can't think of another country where the cause of equality arouses as much popular feeling.
The American ideal of "freedom" has traditionally been conflated with this ideal of "equality" - in fact, some early drafts of the Declaration said "all men are born equally free." The idea is that a society that treats people differently due to their circumstances of birth is not a free society. Later, Communism adopted the language of "equality", using the term to mean something very different (and leading to interminable high-school debates over "equality of opportunity vs. equality of outcome"). But the notion of "equality" as "freedom from social discrimination based on the circumstances of birth" lives on, and now that Communism is effectively dead, the word "equality" is starting to make a comeback - e.g. in the marriage equality movement.
In fact, I don't think it's a stretch to say that every distinctly American ideal springs from "all men are created equal". Democracy, the rule of law, human rights and civil liberties - these all follow from that one animating idea. If "all men are created equal", they all deserve to have a voice in government, they all deserve equal treatment under the law, and they all deserve the same rights and protections. Even capitalism itself relies partly on the notion that everyone should have an equal chance to participate in the economy - that there should be no hereditary rentier class pulling the levers.
The American idea of "all men are created equal" is a radical ideology of incredible power, and it has influenced other nations tremendously. It inspired the French Revolution. It inspired the thinking of the Meiji Restoration reformers. It reshaped much of Europe and Asia after the World Wars, inspiring people there to remake their societies in America's image.
This is why I'm a nationalist at heart. I'm not a jingoist who thinks America always does the right thing. I'm not a blood-and-soil nationalist who thinks of America as a race plus a plot of land. I believe in those five words - "all men are created equal". It's an ambiguous statement, an emotional statement, a religious statement. It's also one of the most powerful and transformative and positive ideas the world has ever known.
That's why we should celebrate July 4th. When our founders wrote those five words, everything changed. Once you say "all men are created equal," once you throw down that gauntlet, you can never take it back. As long as America exists - and even if it dies - "all men are created equal" is here to stay, animating the hearts and minds of billions. In terms of human history, there was Before July 4th, 1776, and there was After July 4th, 1776. I'm damn glad I live in the After.