By Paul Finkelman
Last week we celebrated the Fourth of July with fireworks, bands, flags and outdoor grilling. It was all fun and frolic. But beyond the frivolity, days on the Jersey shore and car sales, we should pause to remember why we have the holiday, and how it connects to American Jews, especially those of us in Philadelphia.
Too often, we forget that the Fourth celebrates the signing of the Declaration of Independence. It was written and signed in Philadelphia, so that in itself makes it a local story. In the Revolutionary era, a number of Jews in Philadelphia joined the patriot movement, including Benjamin Levy, Haym Salomon, Samson Levy, Hyman Levy Jr., Mathias Bush and his son, Lt. Col. Solomon Bush, Moses Mordecai, Lt. Col. David Salisbury Franks, Bernard Gratz and Michael Gratz.
The son of Michael Gratz was Hyman Gratz, who was the founder of Gratz College. Michael’s daughter, Rebecca Gratz, was a major figure in Jewish education and the muse for the institution.
While patriot leaders struggled against the British, the Continental Congress meeting here wrote the Declaration.
The body of the Declaration — the part most people never read — is a list of complaints about the British government and the king. It explains why America was seeking independence. It reads like a lawyer’s bill of particulars, which is not surprising, since three drafters — John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and Robert R. Livingston — were practicing lawyers, and the other two, Roger Sherman and Philadelphia’s Benjamin Franklin, were leaders who understood the intersection of politics, law and business.
Preceding this extensive list of complaints about the king are the two paragraphs — the part many Americans know — that set out both a theory of democratic self-government and the political credo that America stands for. Meanwhile, both the beginning and the end of the Declaration implicitly set the stage for religious liberty in America.
The theory of government is simple: Governments are “instituted” by the people, “deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” In 1776, this was a novel idea. Everywhere in Europe there were kings, princes or other royals who ruled over their people. In America, government and laws were made by the people and their representatives.
More complicated was the fundamental creed of the nation — that all people “are created equal” and endowed with fundamental rights of “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.” This would be the basis of struggles against slavery, discrimination and inequality, and movements supporting equal rights for women and various minorities. When Jews fought against discrimination in housing, employment or college admissions, we relied on the philosophical and moral principles of the Declaration.
A century after the Declaration was signed, the Jewish poet Emma Lazarus wrote the words that are inscribed on the base of the Statue of Liberty, what Lazarus called the “Mother of Exiles.” The words — “Give me your tired, your poor; Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” — dovetail with the credo of the Declaration. Her poem embodies the understanding that the greatness of America is rooted in our willingness to extend liberty, happiness, economic opportunity, sanctuary, equality and political participation to those ready to come here.
The words and ideas are central to what America is all about. They helped attract millions of Jewish immigrants fleeing European oppression in the early 20th century.
Finally, the Declaration implicitly embodies and supports religious liberty. The signers, all of whom were Christians (or deists who had been raised as Christians), might easily have used religion — their religion — to support the Declaration. But, significantly, they did not. The Declaration acknowledged a divine spirit, but consciously rejected sectarianism. The Declaration argued that “the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God” supported Independence, but did not invoke Christian theology or Christian language.
The document argued people were “endowed by their Creator” with the “unalienable Rights” of “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.” Congress appealed to “divine Providence” for the achievement of independence. But the “Creator” and “divine Providence” apply to people of any faith — or no faith at all.
These secular and vague references to divine powers illustrate that the new nation could be the home to anyone — Protestants, Catholics, Jews, deists and the few Muslims living in the United States at the time. Later it would apply to adherents of all faiths.
This concept of religious freedom would later reappear in the Constitution, which provides that “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.”
Last week, on the Fourth of July, we celebrated not just independence from Great Britain, but fundamental freedoms and liberty for all Americans.
Paul Finkelman is the president of Gratz College.