Last night I re-read the Declaration of Independence as I do about this time of year and as I do so I reflect upon the profoundly revolutionary nature of that document. It is not a long read, but quite profound and as I said revolutionary. As I read again I reflected on the beginning of the second sentence of that document.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…” This statement is really the heart of the document and something that when penned by Thomas Jefferson and ratified by the Continental Congress in July 1776 overturned the political philosophy of the day. These words, which begin the second sentence of the Declaration of Independence announced something unimaginable to the people around the world, most of which labored under the rule of ensconced monarchies, nobilities and state religions. In the world where they were written a person’s family pedigree, ownership of property or even religious affiliation counted more than anything else. In that world few commoners had any hope of social advancement, no matter what their talent, ability or genius.
The words of the Declaration were a clarion call of equality and were revolutionary in their impact, not only in the American colonies but around the world. In the coming years people around the world would look to those words as they sought to free themselves from oppressive governments and systems where the vast majority of people had few rights, and in fact no equality existed.
But the liberty and equality stated in the Declaration of Independence did not extend to all in the United States, or in its territories as it expanded westward, and the inequity eventually brought on a great civil war.
Eighty-seven years after those words were published the nation was divided, in the midst of a great civil war, a climactic battle having just been fought at Gettysburg. A few months later President Abraham Lincoln penned one of the most insightful and influential documents ever written, the Gettysburg Address.
One thing that our founders overlooked was that even while proclaiming equality, they later enshrined that one group of people, African slaves were not equal, in fact they only counted as three fifths of a person. Eventually, many states on their own abolished slavery, but because of the invention of the Cotton Gin slavery became even more fully entrenched in the American South, when an oligarchy of land and slave owners held immense power, where nearly half of the population was enslaved and where even poor whites had few rights and little recourse to justice.
After the Dred Scott decision of 1857 which declared that African Americans, no matter if they were slave or free could be American Citizens and had no standing to sue in Federal courts. Scott had sued to gain his family’s freedom after his owner refused to allow him to purchase it, because they were in a territory where slavery was but even more importantly held that the Missouri Compromise of 1824 which had prohibited the introduction of Slavery into Federal territories was unconstitutional and that the Federal government had no right to limit slavery in territories acquired after the creation of the United States. Chief Justice Roger Taney writing for the majority wrote that the authors of the Constitution as viewed all African Americans:
“beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations, and so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”
Taney held that Article V of the Constitution barred any law that would deprive a slave owner of his “property” on entrance into free states or territories and he enunciated a string of negative effects, or “parade of horribles” that would derive if Scott’s petition for freedom was granted. His declaration is amazing in its ignorance and prejudice. Taney wrote:
“It would give to persons of the negro race, …the right to enter every other State whenever they pleased, …to sojourn there as long as they pleased, to go where they pleased …the full liberty of speech in public and in private upon all subjects upon which its own citizens might speak; to hold public meetings upon political affairs, and to keep and carry arms wherever they went.”
The two dissenting Justices, Curtis and McLain disagreed with the proposition that the writers of the Constitution believed as Taney and the majority believed, noting that at the time of the ratification of the Constitution that blacks could vote in five of the thirteen states, making them citizens, not just of those states but the United States. Referring to the Declaration of Independence in 1854 Lincoln wrote: “the standard maxim of free society …constantly spreading and deepening its influence,” ultimately applicable “to peoples of all colors everywhere.”
However, much to the concern of slave holders and the South, the decision energized the abolitionist movement who believed that now no black, even those with a long history of being Freed Men living in non-slave states could be claimed as property by those claiming to be former owners, and that state laws which gave blacks equal rights and citizenship could be overturned. Lincoln again referring to the Declaration wrote of the Dred Scott decision:
“to aid in making the bondage of the Negro universal and eternal….All the powers of the earth seem rapidly combining against him. Mammon is after him; ambition follows, and philosophy follows, and the theology of the day is fast joining the cry. They have him in his prison house;…One after another they have closed the heavy doors upon him…and they stand musing as to what invention, in all the dominions of mind and matter, can be produced the impossibility of his escape more complete than it is.”
Eventually the tensions led to the election of Lincoln along sectional lines and the immediate secession of seven southern states and the establishment of the Confederacy. British military historian and theorist Major General J.F.C. Fuller wrote that the war was “not between two antagonistic political parties, but a struggle to the death between two societies, each championing a different civilization…”
The Confederate Vice President, Alexander Stephens openly proclaimed that the inequity of African Americans was foundational to the Confederacy in his Cornerstone speech of 1861, if there are any doubters about the “rights” the leaders of the Southern States longed to preserve in their secession from the Union, Stephen’s words are all to clear in their intent:
“Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner- stone rests upon the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery — subordination to the superior race — is his natural and normal condition. [Applause.] This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.”
Lincoln, in his Second Inaugural Address acknowledged what everyone had known, but few, him included in the North were willing to say in 1861:
“One-eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union even by war, while the Government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it….”
Even so it took time for the abolition of slavery to be acknowledged as a major concern by the Federal government, it was not until 1862 after Lee’s failed invasion of Maryland and the Battle of Antietam that Lincoln published the Emancipation Proclamation, and that only applied to Confederate occupied areas.
But in 1863 after Gettysburg Lincoln was asked to speak a “few words” at the dedication of the Soldiers’ cemetery. Lincoln’s words focused the issue of the war in relation to those first words of the second sentence of the Declaration of Independence, the understanding that all men are created equal.
“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
Unfortunately, the issue of equality has languished in our political debates. Equality is the sister of and the guarantor of the individual liberties enunciated in the Declaration. However because of human nature always more vulnerable to those that would attempt to enshrine their personal liberty over others, or attempt to use the courts and Constitution to deprive others of the rights that they themselves enjoy, or to enshrine their place in society above others. In some cases this is about race, sometimes religion, sometimes about gender and even sexual orientation. Likewise there are those that would try to roll back the rights of others, as those who seek to disenfranchise the poor and minorities, particularly African Americans at the ballot box.
That is why it is important, even as we celebrate and protect individual liberties that we also seek to fight for the equality of all citizens, irrespective of race, religion, gender or sexual orientation. The Declaration of Independence is our guide for this as Jefferson so eloquently wrote: “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. –That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men…”
I wish all of my readers a happy Independence Day. I also ask that all of us please remember that unless liberty is liberty for all then it is really only liberty for some; those of great economic power and influence; or who happen to be the right race, religion, gender or sexual preference.I don’t believe that such was the intent of Jefferson and those who ratified the Declaration, and I know that it was not the case for Abraham Lincoln, who eighty-seven years later called Americans to embrace a new birth of freedom.