I looked at the table where the Declaration was signed, and it hit me:
For just a few seconds, there was only one American on earth.
After signing a piece of paper but before handing over the pen, that human being was the only American in the world.
Not because of where they were born or what they looked like.
It was a choice that turned that human being into the first American.
Where did that choice take place?
We might say “Philadelphia,” but lets zoom in as close as we can.
A brain scientist might say neurons fired in a brain. In philosophy, free will moved within a mind. A spiritual person might say that a body acted in the direction of a soul.
Yet no matter how we might describe it, the choice occurred inside a person.
After that choice happened within, came a signature others could see. In fact, it was quite a large signature.
Each choice that created each signature would eventually move the world.
Did every human being who signed, believe the exact same thing?
If we follow a chain of American events all the way back, from today’s virtual nation of profiles back to its birth, we see a group of people looking at a paper and one holding a pen.
The next fifty-five individuals who signed, had their own brains and minds and souls.
The meaning of the words which spawned each choice differed in each mind. What felt “sacred and undeniable” to Jefferson felt “self-evident” to Franklin, and different words were tried to point toward a truth that might feel shared.
Of course, Jefferson did not have to watch as Franklin’s tweets poured out the perspectives of his mind. Jefferson didn’t have to see “Jeffy eats it self-evident wins” pop up on his phone just as he reached for the pen.
People once united by territory, and we’ve fought over ideas about that since before the stone age. There was a time when most people united by race, or saw only those of their own gender as “fully human.” There was a time when we formed our strongest groups as religions.
Our beliefs about some part of our humanity were once sufficient to unite people.
But maybe that only worked because we could pretend our own perspectives were shared.
We could hold hands under labels, and ignore the fact that the beliefs beneath our words were not identical.
Our differences were easier to ignore when horses brought news, and we could see only the joy or sorrow on the faces in the room. Then as now, we would search for rooms that responded with the same emoticons we’d use ourselves.
It always feels good to see shared emotional reactions. But that may not be enough for societies to continue to relate to reality, now that everybody’s perspective is on display.
Some words try and point toward a reality that exists beyond perspectives:
“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.”
These words, if they ever did unite a people, may have done so because they pointed to a truth that exists no matter how we look at it.
Each and every human being on earth has something brain-like, something will-like, and an irreduceable essence of character that may as well be called a soul whether or not you like the word. In these ways we may be seen as equal.
The basic existence of what makes us human beings is shared no matter what beliefs grow out of it.
Every human wants something life-like and liberty-like, and we want the ability to pursue happiness wherever we think it ran off to.
Common ground may never have existed in beliefs, even if that is where we look for it first.
The human beings who created a nation may not have believed the exact same things as each other. Maybe that didn’t matter.
It may be time, now, to discover common ground not in our beliefs – but beneath them in the soil of humanity from which they grow.