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Putting The Declaration Of Independence Into Context

NOEL KING, HOST:

This year, as people across this country protest and march and argue and at some points come to agreements about race and racism, I asked the historian David Blight to put the Declaration of Independence into historical context. I asked him what was happening at the time it was drafted.

DAVID BLIGHT: That Declaration of Independence was the attempt to harness a revolution that has broken out. And it is, frankly, a rather bold thing to do. But that preamble, the beginnings of it, whatever we think of Jefferson's slaveholding - and we should think about it - Jefferson declared there that we are all born with rights and liberties that come from God or nature. It is saying that these liberties and rights belong to human beings just because they're human, that monarchy no longer can really live in a world where people want to have republics.

KING: And what, to Americans today, is the Fourth of July? What should people keep in mind as they hear those words?

BLIGHT: That we are unfinished...

KING: Huh.

BLIGHT: ...That nothing about our history is static. We can honor the Founding Fathers. We can admire the genius of those principles. But look how unfinished we are. That's exactly what Lincoln called the American republic in the Gettysburg Address. It was unfinished.

This is part of the American dilemma. We like to think that we were, you know, born pure and then got more pure. And that's just not true. (Laughter) I mean, it's always this kind of experiment trying to make and remake, make and remake itself. And the trouble is, of course, that we only do the remaking out of terrible crises and often violent crises.

So we may be on the verge now of some kind of new civil rights regime that it is our responsibility to create. If so, we want to think we're going to get it right this time. But it's always unfinished.

KING: That's Yale University historian David Blight. In another part of this show, he talks about what the Fourth of July once meant to enslaved people in America. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.