Read today, the Declaration of Independence is a freedom document. It stands for absolute human equality and represents the highest ideals of the American republic. On July 4, we celebrate it as much as we celebrate independence itself.
But as scholars like Garry Wills and Pauline Maier have made clear, this relative consensus on the meaning and significance of the Declaration is the product of political, ideological and social developments over time.
“During the first 15 years following its adoption,” Maier writes in “American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence,” “the Declaration of Independence seems to have been all but forgotten, particularly within the United States, except as the means by which Americans announced their separation from Great Britain.”
The Declaration as we understand it was forged by struggle. Not the struggle with Britain but the struggle within the independent United States for freedom and equality against the weight of the Constitution and the American political system. As you might imagine, the key that shaped our understanding of the Declaration was the fight to end slavery.
“The antislavery movement was not,” the historian Alexander Tsesis writes, “a creation of the Revolution.” Nevertheless, the ideology of the revolution was “inspirational enough to hearten Black petitioners, soldiers and litigants to protest against the resilience of hereditary bondage.” And in that movement, as well as those it spawned, the Declaration of Independence would stand, in the words of the historian David Brion Davis, as a “touchstone” and “sacred scripture” for opponents of slavery.
Examples of this use of the Declaration abound. As early as 1776, we have a pamphlet by Lemuel Haynes, a free Black Congregational minister in Vermont, titled “Liberty Further Extended: Or Free Thoughts on the Illegality of Slave-Keeping.” He begins by quoting the Declaration of Independence and then, embracing the language of natural rights, goes on to assert that “an African” has an “undeniable right to his liberty: Consequently, the practice of slave-keeping, which so much abounds in this land, is illicit.” Although he does not directly quote the Declaration, the author of “Sermon on the Present Situation of the Affairs of America and Great Britain” — who identified himself only as “a black Whig” — seemed to echo the American independence document in 1781 when he wrote, “Next to life is liberty, and when oppression and tyranny are violent they cause the parties oppressed to make some resistance, let them be ever so feeble.” From here, he asked the American revolutionaries to follow their own fight for freedom with the emancipation of the slaves. “And now my virtuous fellow citizens, let me entreat you, that, after you have rid yourselves of the British yoke, that you will also emancipate those who have been all their lifetime subject to bondage.”
White abolitionists and other opponents of slavery also made use of the Declaration in their legal and rhetorical assaults on human bondage.
“It was repeatedly declared in Congress, as language and sentiment of all these states, and by other public bodies of men, ‘that we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,’” wrote the pseudonymous author Crito (after the ancient Athenian companion of Socrates) in 1787. “The Africans, and the blacks in servitude among us, were really as much included in these assertions as ourselves,” he continued. “And if we have not allowed them to enjoy these unalienable rights, we are guilty of a ridiculous, wicked contradiction and inconsistence.”
As the 18th century progressed into the 19th, a new generation of abolitionists would marry reverence for the Declaration with fiery contempt for the Constitution.
“The duty of every American is to give his sympathy and aid to the antislavery movement,” declared the Garrisonian abolitionist Wendell Phillips in 1847. “And the first duty of every citizen is to devote himself to the destruction of the Union and the Constitution, which have already shipwrecked the experiment of civil liberty.” It was out of the wreckage of the Union that the nation would see a “state which will unfold, in noble proportions, the principles of the Declaration of Independence, whose promises made us once the admiration of the world.”
Of course, Frederick Douglass famously wielded the Declaration of Independence as a freedom document in his denunciation of American hypocrisy over slavery. “Whether we turn to the declarations of the past, or to the professions of the present, the conduct of the nation seems equally hideous and revolting,” Douglass said in “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July.” “America is false to the past, false to the present and solemnly binds herself to be false to the future.”
In “Lincoln at Gettysburg,” Garry Wills observed that Abraham Lincoln “was able to achieve the loftiness, ideality and brevity of the Gettysburg Address because he had spent a good part of the 1850s repeatedly relating all the most sensitive issues of the day to the Declaration’s supreme principle. If all men are created equal, they cannot be property.”
This is true. Lincoln played with the central ideas of the Declaration, as he understood them, for much of the previous decade. We see this when he challenged Stephen Douglas’s assertion that its signers meant “men of European birth and European descent, when they declared the equality of all men.”
But Lincoln was also not working in a vacuum. His use of the Declaration of Independence should be situated within the larger context of the antislavery Declaration, deployed by abolitionists and antislavery proponents, Black and white.
It’s no surprise that on Independence Day, most Americans look back to the founding fathers as they celebrate and articulate the nation’s ideals. The story of the changing meaning of the Declaration should be a reminder, however, that we had more than one founding — and far more than just one set of founders.
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