This editorial will appear in Wednesday’s print edition.
Ho Chi Minh of all people – a dedicated communist – paid tribute to America’s Declaration of Independence when he proclaimed Vietnam’s independence in 1945:
“ ‘All men are created equal,’ ” he quoted Jefferson. “ ‘They are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.’
“This immortal statement,” Ho said, “was made in the Declaration of Independence of the United States of America in 1776. In a broader sense, this means: All the peoples on the earth are equal from birth, all the peoples have a right to live, to be happy and free.”
Ho, sincerely or cynically, was connecting the dots: If inalienable rights exist, they are as inalienable for the Vietnamese as they are for Americans. That subversive idea – that freedom is a God-given entitlement, not a loan from rulers – has been unsettling nations since the first Independence Day 236 years ago.
Let’s hear what three American leaders – John Quincy Adams, Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy – had to say about the revolutionary implications of the Declaration.
Here is Adams, not yet president, in the U.S. House of Representatives on July 4, 1821:
“It was the first solemn declaration, by a nation, of the only legitimate foundation of civil government. It was the cornerstone of a new fabric, destined to cover the surface of the globe.
“It demolished at a stroke the lawfulness of all governments founded upon conquest. It swept away all the rubbish of accumulated centuries of servitude. It announced in practical form to the world the transcendent truth of the inalienable sovereignty of the people. It proved that the social compact was no figment of the imagination, but a real, solid, and sacred bond of the social union.”
Here is Lincoln, speaking off the top of his head in 1861 while visiting Independence Hall in Philadelphia:
“I have never had a feeling politically that did not spring from the sentiments embodied in the Declaration of Independence. …
“I have often inquired of myself, what great principle or idea it was that kept this Confederacy so long together. It was not the mere matter of the separation of the Colonies from the motherland; but that sentiment in the Declaration of Independence which gave liberty, not alone to the people of this country, but, I hope, to the world, for all future time.”
And here is Kennedy, also speaking at Independence Hall, on July 4, 1961:
“To read it today is to hear a trumpet call. For that Declaration unleashed not merely a revolution against the British, but a revolution in human affairs. Its authors were highly conscious of its worldwide implications. And George Washington declared that liberty and self-government everywhere were, in his words, ‘finally staked on the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American people.’
“This prophecy has been borne out. For 186 years, this doctrine of national independence has shaken the globe – and it remains the most powerful force anywhere in the world today.”
The United States has contributed innumerable things to the world. None is more important than its effort to embody the ideal that all humans have an equal right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.