A painting of the signing of the Declaration of Independence...

A painting of the signing of the Declaration of Independence by J. Trumbull. Credit: Library of Congress

It's true that on July 4, masses of people gained liberty. But it wasn't in 1776, it didn't happen in Philadelphia, and it wasn't the yoke of Great Britain that was thrown off. It happened 185 years ago today, on July 4, 1827, when slavery in New York ceased.

The document we celebrate today, the Declaration of Independence, set no one free. It took the Revolutionary War and the Constitution to do that. But the Declaration of Independence shines so brightly because it defined the liberties all people deserve and declared them worth any price. It said the freedoms we now take for granted, so alien for much of human history, are inalienable and deserved and bestowed by God.

On some.

Slavery continued after the Revolutionary War, and it was prevalent in New York. With slaves counting as three-fifths of a person in apportioning congressional seats, their numbers brought almost a full district for the state.

But the words in the Declaration and, later, the Constitution planted the seed of emancipation in people's hearts. The question was how to free slaves without causing too much loss to their owners, and thus, too much opposition. The answer was gradually. In 1799, New York passed a law that progressively freed slaves over a 28-year period, beginning on July 4, 1799. On July 4, 1827, the last of them were freed.

The dates were no accident. America began to break free of its English masters on July 4, and slaves in New York, in recognition of that event, became free of their American ones on the same day, years later .

In fact, since 1776, the Fourth of July has often been targeted for landmark events, often to make a political point about freedom. On this date, Texas voted to become part of the United States (1845), Booker T. Washington established Tuskegee University (1881), the Statue of Liberty was presented as a gift from France (1884), the Republic of Hawaii was proclaimed (1894), the U.S. air offensive over Nazi Germany began (1942), Radio Free Europe first broadcast (1950), President Lyndon Johnson signed the Freedom of Information Act (1966).

The promises of the Declaration and the founders were beginnings, not an end. The reach of liberty has and will continue to grow. It grew again last year when New York legalized same-sex marriage. Elsewhere, across the world, people struggle to gain the freedoms we have. Dictators are overthrown, elections held, women empowered, children educated. Progress is evident, but halting and inconsistent. The struggle will never end.

It's worth rejoicing today as we exult in the brilliance and promise of the Declaration of Independence. And here in New York, the day presents us with a different, equally joyous event to commemorate. On July 4, 1776, the freedoms all members of the human race deserve were enunciated; for many black New Yorkers who had been no better treated than chattel, some of those promised freedoms began to materialize 51 years later. And it can be hoped -- in a world where so many still lack these precious rights -- that future Fourths of July will be marked with ever more liberations to celebrate.


Unlimited Digital AccessOnly 25¢for 5 months