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We Hold These Truths to be Self-Evident…

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

In a few days we as Americans will be celebrating the 241st anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. As the day approaches I’ll be writing more reflections on what it means even as I intersperse some articles on the Battle of Gettysburg, a victory that helped ensure that the Union would survive and that helped to pave the way for the understanding that the Declaration must be understood in its universal sense. In a day like ours where many localities, states, and even the Federal government appear to be working to limit those rights, often based on the religious beliefs of a powerful, well-funded and militant minority of conservative Christians, this all the more important.

For me it is the truth both of a concept of Liberty which must continuously be advanced or expanded, and the still imperfect embodiment of that concept in the land that it was born. The authors of the declaration wrote, “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, and that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are life, Liberty, and the pursuit of happiness…”  Eighty-seven years later while dedicating the Soldier’s Cemetery at Gettysburg noted that the new nation was “conceived in Liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” 

Lincoln understood from the reality of war, and the statements of European leaders that the whole concept of a country being founded on a proposition like this, not race, not class, not religion, not station in life, was bound to be opposed, and was incredibly fragile. He confronted a rebellion which based itself on the belief that African Americans were less than equal, in fact subhuman and deserving of being enslaved by a superior race. Likewise, there were those in Europe who cheered the rebellion and believed that it proved that such experiments were doomed to failure, a belief that is still widely held, but more often by American elites than others.

But like it or not, the proposition that all men are created equal, and endowed by their creator with certain unalienable Rights; a concept so imperfectly practiced by the very men who drafted it and those who followed them, still is right. That proposition was universalized as a political philosophy by Abraham Lincoln, is the basis of all hope for humanity. Tyrants, despots, dictators, terrorists, religious zealots of every sect filled with messianic visions, as well as madmen all desire to trample this proposition. Some desire to believe that those rights can simply be maintained by the power of a Constitution, but unless the people who swear to uphold that Constitution are dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal that very Constitution can be perverted and used to enslave people, as it was by the men who drafted the Kansas-Nebraska Act, the Fugitive Slave Laws, and the Supreme Court decisions in Dred Scott and Plessy v. Ferguson cases ruled that African Americans were less than equal as human beings, and therefore not entitled to the same rights and liberties as were white people. It is the same constitution and laws that were used to deny citizenship and rights to Chinese immigrants until 1942, that were used by the government to interment native born Japanese American citizens in concentration camps during the Second World War, which drove Native Americans off their ancestral homelands, massacred them by the tens of millions, and placed them on reservations without any rights of American citizens until 1924; and which denied suffrage to women until 1919, and denied basic civil rights to LGBTQ people until recently; rights that in many states are still denied by state legislatures. But without equality, freedom is an illusion.

Judge Learned Hand, perhaps the best qualified man ever to not serve on the Supreme Court wrote,

“Liberty lies in the hearts of men and women; when it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can even do much to help it. The spirit of Liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right; the spirit of Liberty is the spirit which seeks to understand the minds of othe men and women; the spirit of Liberty is that which weighs their interests alongside its own without bias.” 

That is why the proposition in the Declaration which was universalized by Lincoln in the Gettysburg Address is still of the utmost importance. It is why it must be fought for, especially when politicians like Donald Trump and others threaten its very existence, and whose followers see it as only as Liberty for themselves and their interests. That proposition is under duress today, there are millions of followers of Trump and the demagogues who would deny Liberty to others based on race, religion, ethnicity, economic status, gender, or by them being LGBTQ. But, Liberty is a perilous thing, but once that proposition of Liberty dies in our hearts, there is nothing that can save it, no constitution, no law, no court; and those who place their trust in it the demagogues will find that they will eventually lose their Liberty as well.

In 1858 Lincoln spoke in Chicago, and in that speech he linked the common connection of all Americans share, even recent immigrants, through the Declaration. It was an era of intense anti-immigrant passions, the American Party, which sprang from the Know Nothing movement which founded upon extreme hatred of immigrants, and Roman Catholics, and violence against them, had run former President Millard Fillmore for election as at their candidate in 1856 following the collapse of the Whig Party.

In opposition to this party and movement  Lincoln proclaimed that immigrants, “cannot carry themselves back into that glorious epoch and make themselves feel a part of us, but when they look through that old Declaration of Independence, they find those old men say that “we hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal,… That is the father of all moral principle to them, and they have a right to claim it as if they were blood of the blood, and flesh of the flesh of the men who wrote the Declaration, and so they are. That is the electric cord in the Declaration that links the hearts of patriotic and Liberty-loving men together, that will link those patriotic hearts as long as the love of freedom exists in the minds of men throughout the world.” 

Lincoln was absolutely correct, it is that love of freedom, liberty, and equality that echoes in the Declaration, and it is still a revolutionary idea. We hold these truths to be self evident…

As a historian I cannot get away from this. Whether it is in my study of European history, particularly the Weimar Republic and the Nazi takeover, or the American Civil War, especially the times I visit the Soldier’s Cemetery at Gettysburg and talk about the Gettysburg Address with my students. The breadth of my experience, having visited Dachau and Bergen-Belsen, having watched the unadulterated adulation of crowds of Germans chanting Sieg Heil!,  having grown up in this country at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, and having walked so many battlegrounds where American men have died fighting such tyranny makes me all too sensitive to why this proposition is so important.

That is why the quest for the fulfillment of that proposition is something that cannot be given up, it is in the words of Lincoln, “it is for us the living rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who have fought for have thus far so nobly advanced. That it is for us to be 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 should 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, and for the people shall not perish from the earth.” 

For me it is this proposition, the proposition mocked by the elites of Europe, the proposition that any republic founded on such a proposition was doomed to fail, this proposition that says “we hold these truths to be self evident that all men are created equal” is what Independence Day is about. That is why in my remaining service to this country I will rededicate myself to seeing that “new birth of freedom” is fulfilled for every American.

That may seem a pipe dream to some people, and even impossible to others; but it is what far too many of the men and women who served before me gave the last full measure of devotion to duty to bring to fulfillment. Learned Hand was right, if Liberty dies in our hearts, no law, no constitution, no court, can save us.

Have a great Independence Day and please remember it is not about the day off, the picnics, or displays of military might, it is about that proposition; the one that is so easy to forget, the proposition that all men are created equal.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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“One after another they have closed the heavy doors upon him…” The Dred Scott Decision

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Another article from one of my Civil War texts, this one dealing with the infamous Dred Scott decision. That decision, made by a Southern dominated, Supreme Court, members of whom included number of slave owners, done in collusion with President Elect James Buchanan, declared that African Americans had no right to citizenship, thus no protection under the law, no-matter where they lived. It would not be overturned until after the Civil War when Congress passed the 14th Amendment, an amendment that is vital for all of our liberties.

Again, for those in denial about how we got to this point in our history, this is not a comfortable subject.

Have a great day,

Peace

Padre Steve+

dred scott

Dred Scott

The Deepening Divide

As the 1850s wore on, the divisions over slavery became deeper and voices of moderation retreated. The trigger for the worsening of the division was the political battle regarding the expansion of slavery; even the status of free blacks in the north that were previously slaves, over whom their owners asserted their ownership. Southerners considered the network to help fugitive slaves escape to non-slave states, called the Underground Railroad “an affront to the slaveholders pride” and “anyone who helped a man or woman escape bondage was simply a thief” who had robbed them of their property and livelihood, as an “adult field hand could cost as much as $2000, the equivalent of a substantial house.” [1]

In 1856 the Supreme Court, dominated by southern Democrats ruled in favor of southern views in the Dred Scott decision, one pillar of which gave slavery the right to expand by denying to Congress the power to prohibit slavery in Federal territories. Taney’s ruling in the case insisted “Neither the Declaration of Independence nor the Constitution had been intended to apply to blacks he said. Blacks were “so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” Taney did not stop with this but he declared the Missouri Compromise itself unconstitutional for “Congress had exceeded its authority when it forbade slavery in the territories by such legislation as the Missouri Compromise, for slaves were private property protected by the Constitution.” [2]

ROGER B. TANEY (1777-1864).  Roger Taney, Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, handing down his decision on the Dred Scott case, 1857. American illustration.

Dred Scott Decison

The decision was momentous, but the judicial fiat of Taney and his court majority was a disaster for the American people. It solved nothing and further divided the nation:

“In the South, for instance, it encouraged southern rights advocates to believe that their utmost demands were legitimatized by constitutional sanction and, therefore, to stiffen their insistence upon their “rights.” In the North, on the other hand, it strengthened a conviction that an aggressive slavocracy was conspiring to impose slavery upon the nation, and that any effort to reach an accommodation with such aggressors was futile. While strengthening the extremists, it cut the ground from under the moderates.” [3]

The decision in the case is frightening when one looks upon its tenor and implications. The majority opinion, which was written by Chief Justice Roger Taney, was chilling, not only in its views of race, but the fact that blacks were perpetually property without the rights of citizens. Taney wrote:

“Can a negro, whose ancestors were imported into this country, sold as slaves, become a member of the political community formed and brought into existence by the Constitution of the United States, and as such become entitled to all the rights, and privileges, and immunities, guaranteed by that instrument to the citizen?…It is absolutely certain that the African race were not included under the name of citizens of a state…and that they were not included, and were not intended to be included, under the word “citizens” in the Constitution, and therefore claim none of the rights and privileges which that instrument provides for and secures to citizens of the United States. On the contrary, they were at that time considered as a subordinate and inferior class of beings, who had been subjugated by the dominant race, and, whether emancipated or not, yet remain subject to their authority, and had no rights or privileges but those who held the power and the Government might choose to grant them” [4]

The effect of the ruling on individuals and the states was far reaching. “No territorial government in any federally administered territory had the authority to alter the status of a white citizen’s property, much less to take that property out of a citizen’s hands, without due process of law or as punishment for some crime.” [5] Free slaves were no longer safe, even in Free States, from the possibility of being returned to slavery, because they were considered property. The tens of thousands of free blacks in the South were effectively stripped of citizenship, and became vulnerable to either expulsion or re-enslavement, something that the legislatures in Virginia, North Carolina and Missouri debated in 1858. Likewise the decision cast doubt on the free status of every African American regardless of residence.” [6]

roger-b-taney-1-sized

Chief Justice Roger B. Taney

But the decision had been influenced by President-Elect James Buchanan’s secret intervention in the Supreme Court deliberations two weeks before his inauguration. Buchanan hoped by working with the Justices that he would save the Union from breaking apart by appeasing slave owners and catering to their agenda. “The president-elect wanted to know not only when, but if the Court would save the new administration and the Union from the issue of slavery in the territories. Would the judges thankfully declare the explosive subject out of bounds, for everyone who exerted federal power? The shattering question need never bother President Buchanan.” [7] In his inaugural address he attempted to camouflage his intervention and “declared that the Court’s decision, whatever it turned out to be, would settle the slavery issue forever.” [8]

But Buchanan attempt at appeasement was mistaken. The case made the national political situation even more volatile because it destroyed the political middle in Congress which had previously found compromise.  Taney’s decision impaired “the power of Congress – a power which had remained intact to this time – to occupy the middle ground.” [9] The Dred Scott decision was far reaching in its implications and Taney declared that Congress “never had the right to limit slavery’s expansion, and that the Missouri Compromise had been null and void on the day of its formulation.” [10] Taney’s ruling fulfilled what Thomas Jefferson wrote when he noted that the Missouri Compromise was merely a reprieve from the broader ideological and economic issues involved regarding slavery, and Taney destroyed that reprieve with the stroke of his pen.

The Court’s decision “that a free negro was not a citizen and the decision that Congress could not exclude slavery from the territories were intensely repugnant to many people in the free states” [11] and it ignited a firestorm in the north where Republicans now led by Abraham Lincoln, decried the decision and southerners basked in their judicial victory. Southerners were exultant, the Richmond Enquirer wrote that the Court had destroyed “the foundation of the theory upon which their warfare has been waged against the institutions of the South.” [12] Northerners now quite rightly feared that an activist court would rule to deny their states the right to forbid slavery. As early as 1854 Lincoln posed the idea that the Declaration of Independence was the standard maxim of free society …constantly spreading and deepening its influence,” ultimately applicable “to peoples of all colors everywhere.” [13]

After the Dred Scott decision Lincoln warned that the Declaration was being cheapened and diluted, he remained insistent on this point, he noted:

“Our Declaration of Independence was held sacred by all, and thought to include all” Lincoln declared, “but now, to aid in making the bondage of the Negro universal and eternal, it is assaulted, and sneered at, and construed, and hawked at, and torn, till, its framers could ride from their graves, they could not recognize it at all.” [14]

Lincoln attacked the decision noting that Taney “insists at great length that negroes were no part of the people who made, or for whom made, the declaration of Independence or the Constitution.” But as Doris Kearns Goodwin notes “in at least five states, black voters action on the ratification of the Constitution and were among the “We the People” by whom the Constitution was ordained and established.” Lincoln acknowledged that the founders “did not declare all men equal in all respects. They did not mean to say that all were equal in color, size, intellect, moral developments, or social capacity.” But they dis declare all men “equal in ‘certain inalienable rights, among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.’…They meant simply to declare the right, so the enforcement of it might follow as circumstances permit.” [15]

Not only that, Lincoln asked the logical question regarding Taney’s judicial activism. Lincoln and other Republican leaders “noted that all slavery needed was one more Dred Scott decision that a state could not bar slavery and the objective of Slave Power to nationalize slavery would be accomplished.” [16] How long would it be, asked Abraham Lincoln, before the Court took the next logical step and ruled explicitly that the:

“Constitution of the United States does not permit a state to exclude slavery from its limits?” How far off was the day when “we shall lie down pleasantly thinking that the people of Missouri are on the verge of making their State free; and shall awake to the reality, instead, that the Supreme Court has made Illinois a slave State?” [17]

Lincoln discussed the ramification of the ruling for blacks; both slave and free:

“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.” [18]

Frederick Douglass noted that “Judge Taney can do many things…but he cannot…change the essential nature of things – making evil good, and good, evil.” [19]

Lincoln was not wrong in his assessment of the potential effects of the Dred Scott decision on Free States.  State courts in free-states made decisions on the basis of Dred Scott that bode ill for blacks and cheered slave owners.  In newly admitted California the state supreme court ominously “upheld a slaveowner’s right to retain his property contrary to the state’s constitution.” [20]

A similar decision made by a New York Court was being used by slave-states to bring that issue to the Taney Court following Dred Scott. “In 1852 a New York judge upheld the freedom of eight slaves who had left their Virginia owner while in New York City on their way to Texas.” [21] The Dred Scott decision brought that case, Lemon v. The People back to the fore and “Virginia decided to take the case to the highest New York court (which upheld the law in 1860) and would have undoubtedly appealed it to Taney’s Supreme Court had not secession intervened.” [22] Even non-Republican parties such as the democrats could see the writing on the wall. The national publication of the Democratic Party, the Washington Union “announced that the clear implication of the Dred Scott decision was that all state laws prohibiting a citizen from another state, either permanently or temporarily, were unconstitutional.” [23]

Notes

[1] Goodheart, Adam. Moses’ Last Exodus in The New York Times: Disunion, 106 Articles from the New York Times Opinionator: Modern Historians Revisit and Reconsider the Civil War from Lincoln’s Election to the Emancipation Proclamation Edited by Ted Widmer, Black Dog and Leventhal Publishers, New York 2013 p.15

[2] Ibid. Goodwin Team of Rivals p. 189

[3] Ibid. Potter The Impending Crisis p.291

[4] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightning: A New History of the Civil War Era and Reconstruction p.91

[5] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightning pp.91-92

[6] Ibid. Goldfield America Aflame p.142

[7] Ibid. Freehling The Road to Disunion Volume II: Secessionists Triumphant 1854-1861 p.115

[8] Ibid. Freehling The Road to Disunion Volume II: Secessionists Triumphant 1854-1861 p.109

[9] Ibid. Potter The Impending Crisis p.291

[10] Ibid. Levine Half Slave and Half Free p.210

[11] Ibid. Potter The Impending Crisis p.279

[12] Ibid. Goodwin Team of Rivals p. 190

[13] Ibid. Catton Two Roads to Sumter p.139

[14] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightning p.93

[15] Ibid. Goodwin Team of Rivals p. 190

[16] Gienapp, William E. The Republican Party and Slave Power in The Civil War and Reconstruction Documents and Essays Third Edition edited by Michael Perman and Amy Murrell Taylor Wadsworth Cengage Learning Boston MA 2011 p.81

[17] Ibid. Levine Half Slave and Half Free p.211

[18] Ibid. Catton Two Roads to Sumter p.139

[19] Ibid. Goodwin Team of Rivals p. 190

[20] Ibid. Gienapp The Republican Party and Slave Power p.81

[21]  Ibid. McPherson The Battle Cry of Freedom p.181

[22] Ibid. McPherson The Battle Cry of Freedom p.181

[23] Ibid. Gienapp The Republican Party and Slave Power p.82

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