The Intent Of The Declaration Of Independence

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In his book The Nation That Never Was, Kermit Roosevelt lays out the standard story we are all taught about our history. The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution are our founding documents. They lay out our principles of freedom and equality. The Declaration teaches us that All Men Are Created Equal and entitled to certain inalienable rights. P. 8 et seq. The Constitution puts that theory into practice. It’s so engrained in our minds that it’s hard to imagine contesting it.

But people have. Roosevelt gives examples from the 19th Century. White supremacists across the nation argued that these documents justified slavery, the eradication of Native Americans, and second-class citizenship for women, among other inequalities. Black people and Abolitionists said that equality and freedom were meant for everyone in the country, not just White men of property.

This dispute continued into the Civil Rights Era in the 20th Century. In his I Have A Dream speech, Martin Luther King said that the Declaration was a guarantee of freedom and equality for all.

“I have a dream,” he said, “that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’” P. 23.

Malcom X saw the Declaration as a call to action for Black people, who he said were a nation within a nation. The US had abused Black people for hundreds of years, and refused to treat them as human beings. Therefore, just as the colonists were justified in rebelling against an abusive King, Black people were justified in rebelling against White rule. For him, the Declaration was not about equality, but about the right to throw out the oppressors.

Roosevelt offers four arguments that we shouldn’t interpret the statement “all men are created equal” as a political foundation for the US government.

First, if we interpret that statement as Lincoln did in the Gettysburg Address, or King did in his I Have A Dream speech, Jefferson would have to be condemning slavery and granting the freedmen the same rights as White people. Jefferson obviously wasn’t saying that. He himself was a slaver: he enslaved his own children by Sally Hemings. This was perfectly legal in Virginia, which passed a statute in 1662 saying that citizenship of a person depends on the citizenship of the mother. This was necessary because “questions have arisen” after a Virginia court decided that the daughter of a White man with nn enslaved woman was a free woman. P. 45.

Second, the ideal of equality is irrelevant to Jefferson’s argument. There is no other mention of equality in the Declaration. There’s a long list of abuses and offenses committed by the King of England, and it’s those abuses that justify throwing off the King’s rule by force, not the equality of anyone with anyone. It wouldn’t affect Jefferson’s argument if the King were treating Englishmen equally with the Colonists by oppressing both, .

Third, Jefferson’s first draft complained that the King introduced slavery into the Colonies and then overruled the Colonist’s attempts to terminate the slave trade. That was taken out by the Signers, leaving only the complaint that the King was stirring up rebellion among the slaves. That’s the equivalent of a demand to have the king stay out of Colonial slavery.

Fourth, you wouldn’t make equality a principle and then exclude people from the definition of “all men”. That makes you look bad, especially because England had already outlawed slavery. [Adding on edit: This is an overstatement of the facts. See the comments of Michael Conforti below. I may also have overstated Roosevelt’s point. I quoted his text in a comment below.] Continuing slavery makes you look like hypocrites in the eyes of potential allies. Relatedly, freedom and equality of all citizens was not the dominant view, and calling that self-evident would look foolish.

So, what did Jefferson mean? He claims that it is self-evidently true that all men are created equal and endowed with equal rights. Then he says

That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it,

This is the actual principle that motivates the Declaration: government power comes from the consent of the governed, and the governed have a natural right to withdraw that consent if the government misuses its power.

Jefferson explains that the Colonists aspire “to the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them”. He’s basing his entire argument on Natural Law, not laws created by humans. He’s saying that there is no Divine Right of Kings, that the King is just a man, not a person born to rule, or ordained by the Almighty with the right to rule. This was mostly accepted by this point even in England. But it moves the argument onto solid ground, the grounds of consent. Roosevelt says that the Declaration is a document of political philosophy, not of human rights.

And how does slavery, the antithesis of freedom and equality, fit in?. Roosevelt says that Jefferson is referring to the generally accepted idea of government at that time. It comes from the likes of Jean-jacques Rousseau, as we saw in The Dawn Of Everything. It begins by imagining a society in a state of nature. Everyone is free and equal, and has certain natural rights. But they have no way to protect those rights other than their own strength, leading to a war of all against all in which life is brutish, nasty, etc., following Hobbes.

So men formed governments to protect those rights. The men who formed the government agree to defend each other against the outsiders, who have no protection from that government. The Declaration doesn’t say anything about the rights of outsiders like slaves and Indigenous Americans. It only addresses the rights of insiders, the White English colonists, as against their rulers.

Slavery is perfectly consistent with this view of nationhood. The slaves, Native Americans, and others are outsiders, beyond the protection of government and not entitled to equality or freedom, except as the government is willing to provide.


1. Many of the books I”ve discussed here have changed my understanding of something I was taught in school. I think one reason I don’t have trouble changing my mind is that so few things seem critical to my self-understanding. For example, I was taught that there was a fixed external truth, and that our human truths are mere approximations of that truth. Now I think differently about truth. But that doesn’t change anything about my self-perception or my day-to-day interactions with other people. On the other hand, when I am accused of bad behavior towards others I feel an assault on my self-perception, and I try to change my behavior.

The standard story seems critically important to lots of right-wing partisans, as we saw in the right-wing reaction to the 1619 Project, and the hissy-fit about Critical Race Theory. It’s one thing to say: my principles include the belief that all men are crated equal and have the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It’s another to say one of my principles is that Thomas Jefferson and the other Founders believed that and said so in the Declaration and the Constitution. The latter strikes me as akin to a religious belief, analoguous to the early Egyptians believing that the dead require leavened bread and wheat beer and changing their entire agriculture to fit that belief.

2. The Declaration may not have originally stood for the proposition that all men are created equal, but now it absolutely does. The history of that change of perception is important, because it tells us that we as a nation can change. Slavery was once widely accepted. Now it’s not. Our ancestors reversed that consensus, and we can and should be proud of that. It is as inspiration to work for a better country.

72 replies
    • Ed Walker says:

      “… slavery—practiced in the colonies but not recognized in England after the 1772 decision in the Somerset case.” P. 37.

      “… the Somerset case, the 1772 decision by Lord Mansfield that proclaimed slavery “odious.” The precise meaning of the decision is disputed and unclear, but it was generally read to abolish slavery in England, in the absence of positive law authorizing it. As to that law, supporters of slavery had petitioned Parliament, while the case was pending, to authorize slavery in England.” P. 58.

      “Did the colonists perceive a threat? They definitely knew of the decision, which was widely reported in colonial papers.8 (The slave it freed was from Virginia and had been brought to England by a Scottish merchant.) It was not met by an enormous amount of protest in the colonies, which might tend to suggest that slave owners did not see it as a significant threat. On the other hand, slave owners in the West Indies did react strongly, which might suggest that the North American silence had something to do with the fact that the growing movement for independence was coming together around different themes. “No taxation without representation” could unite the colonies and perhaps win foreign support; “Hands off our slaves” could not. (Benjamin Franklin, for complex reasons, wrote an essay before Mansfield’s decision expressing the hope that it could lead to abolition of the trade in slaves and even to “procuring Liberty for those that remain in our Colonies.”)”
      P. 58-9.

      In the Somerset case, Lord Mansfield said that slavery was “odious”, and contrary to natural law. It could only exist as a matter of positive, man-made law. There was no such law, and after this decision, despite requests Parliament refused to pass such a law. Roosevelt interprets this as evidence that slavery was illegal in England.

      • PeteT0323 says:

        Apropos of nothing to further the main discussion Ed has put forth here none the less this is true. But it did take until 1833 for England to abolish slavery in the British West Indies:

        And no paper law caused immediate change in behavior or attitude – “funny” that.

        I am a descendant of a maternal Bahamian Grandmother ostensibly considered White or E for English (a whole other OT on how race was determined generally at birth there). None the less via DNA and ancestral tracking via limited documentation I do have quite a few distant cousins of African descent whose families were slaves.

        Thanks Ed!

      • Michael Conforti, J.D., Ph.D. says:

        Some comments on the quotes you supply from Roosevelt’s book based upon my own dissertation research which includes two chapters on Somerset. First, there is no ‘official’ report of the Somerset decision by Mansfield, which was rendered orally from the bench. Most ‘reports’ are notes taken by observers, participants (lawyers) and from the newspapers. I rely on a transcription taken at the time by a stenographer commissioned by Granville Sharpe, the prime mover behind the case and the most vocal opponent of slavery in England at the time. Second, Mansfield framed his decision quite precisely: could a foreigner (the slave owner Stewart) compel a person to leave England and return to his condition as a slave outside of England? Mansfield said that no such power was recognized by English common law or statute. Indeed, in a subsequent case, Rex v. Ditton, 99 Eng. Rep. 891 (K.B. 1785) that is precisely what Mansfield said he and the other judges meant in Somerset, although there is a technical argument that can be raised on this point regarding the law applicable to habeas corpus proceedings.

        Second, the reception of the case in England was as ambiguous as Mansfield’s holding and the debate concerning its meaning continued for several years afterward, although the focus of the debate shifted from the legality of slavery in England to its moral dimensions.

        Third, as far as the contention that Mansfield described slavery as contrary to natural law, Mansfield did not make that a basis for his ruling. He did not specifically invoke natural law, although natural right theory was advanced by Somerset’s lawyers during the arguments of the cause. What Mansfield did, as I have argued elsewhere, was reject the argument that Somerset could be considered property, thus subject to the absolute, unfettered right of the property owner to do with Somerset as he pleased. Somerset was a person, and under English law no master could subject his servant to such a coercive power as his forcible removal from England against his will. Mansfield was not about to make a broad pronouncement regarding the legality of slavery in England, the consequences of which Mansfield was acutely aware, when he could decide the case under existing master/servant law.

        [FYI — Please use the same username each time you comment so that community members get to know you. Your username has been edited to match that used in your first comment. If you don’t want both of your professional degrees included, please indicate in a reply to this comment. Thanks. /~Rayne]

        • Ed Walker says:

          Thanks for this comment. The breadth of the expertise of readers is one of the great things about this site. I will add a note to the post referencing your comments.

        • Epicurus says:

          Robert Cover wrote a book called Justice Accused: Antislavery and the Judicial Process. Its first chapter is “The Intellectual Tradition: Slavery, Natural Law, and Judicial Positivism in the Eighteenth Century”. It should be mandatory reading alongside Roosevelt’s and Foner’s books

  1. Michael Conforti, J.D., Ph.D. says:

    Actually, the Slave Trade Abolition Act of March 1807, a/k/a An Act to Abolish the Transatlantic Slave Trade, abolished Britain’s involvement in the transatlantic slave trade. Slavery within the British Empire was not abolished until 1833. And, while the Declaration can be read as a restatement of political philosophy, the notion that when a government misuses it power to such an extent that the contract between the rulers and the ruled is broken, and the ruled may institute a new form of government to replace the old (the right of rebellion), derives from John Locke’s Two Treatises on Government, not Rousseau.

    • Bad Robot says:

      Thank you for the wonderful summation of the “…and the Lords never protected the serfs (and other lies we learned in high school)”

      Just ask Sally Hemings during your next thought experiment when bringing up Thomas Jefferson.

      Notions of persons versus non persons, corporations as people, and persons and non-persons, lords versus commoners, are alive and as audacious and ludicrous as ever because the CURRENCY of dehumanization (“othering” people) pays handsomely.

      It really does pay more to have other people think less of each other.

      Across disparate cultures and times, numerous examples make it humanity’s shared flaw. Today, do we have the courage today to laugh and OWN the blind hypocrisy of our founding fathers who as slave owners bitched about taxes owed to the monarchy while owning people? Are we THAT brave?

      I think not. We’re taught to idolize them. Not taught who Sally Hemings was – whoever she was…whatever she was…

      Today, people with good credit pay less for borrowed money. What’s your FICO score? How much do you own? How much debt do you owe?

      Each year the US government lends large US banks money WITHOUT interest for student loans and those large banks make a profit by simply packaging the loans and assessing interest to those student loans, serfs be warned.

      For yourself, Modern Day Slavery exists not just in human trafficking, but in new systems of debts and deeds and jobs.

      Are you truly free?

      • c-i-v-i-l says:

        Re: notions of persons versus non-persons, I wish we had a good word for the antonym of dehumanization. In this context, anthropomorphism comes closest but still doesn’t work for me. I also wish we had a good word for the sometimes-fuzzy boundary between person and non-person. Some very different contexts where I’ve thought about who/what “should” be a legal person include abortion (there is a movement for legal personhood at human-conception that I strongly disagree with), animal rights (there is a legal personhood movement for some species, including chimps and elephants, though I’d argue that we can/should protect them without that), and human death (brain death is legal death, even when that person’s body is still alive on life support). Reasoning about all of these involves both facts and values. Facts alone are insufficient. And that brings me back to your comment: poor people are people, but many of our institutions and regulations don’t value their lives as much as wealth-generating companies and wealthy people. Which now makes me wonder whether the use of “value” both for “monetary worth” and “importance” leads many to conflate them.

        • Rayne says:

          Regardless of scientific or religious recognition of personhood, recognition of citizenship is constrained at two points in the U.S. Constitution:

          No Person except a natural born Citizen, or a Citizen of the United States, at the time of the Adoption of this Constitution, shall be eligible to the Office of President; [Article II, Section 1]


          All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. … [14th Amendment, Section 1]

          The use of the word “born” and “Person/persons” implies the scope and limits of law; it should cover and protect every person who is born. While I believe we do need more and better legislation to protect animals especially as we learn more about their degree of sentience, it will be a stretch to afford them the same as human rights when more than half the human population of this nation aren’t assured that already.

          We should also be worrying about the non-human legal constructs like corporations which have rights nearly on par with persons born, are immortal, and could include near-sentient artificial intelligence. Again, this construct might have rights we haven’t guaranteed more than half this country.

  2. BobBobCon says:

    A big part of the wrongful justification of rights only fully applying to White men was the notion that nonwhites (and women) were inherently inferior. It was widely and falsely assumed that nonwhites and women were not only intellectually inferior but inherently lacking things like emotional and moral qualities, and therefore unsuited to the same level of rights.

    Modern science has established how dumb those ideas were, although it is the project of quacks like Charles Murray to gain enough political traction to overwrite well-established scientific knowledge, and thereby reestablish second class citizenship based on quack science grounds.

  3. Intone says:

    Hi Ed,

    I suspect their intention was to best meet their needs by picking a strategy that they knew of that best suited that situation. Much like we all do.

    Back then I suspect “all men” meant all men who were a part of the process that created those documents. They found a group of people with similar interests and saw an opportunity to govern others in their favour. To that cadre, that was a great choice.

    Obviously in context of today “all men” it’s a sad joke, but it’s easy to see why they acted as they did when you examine it though the lens of people meeting needs based on their known strategies.

    It appears you are looking for hope in terms of human rights today, so to me I take solice in knowing that change is possible if people increase their awareness of their own intentions by examining their needs at the moment and being exposed to alternative strategies to allow them to make healthier choices.

    If you want to understand the behaviour of people long dead, I suspect a history book is mainly going to concern itself with the authors intentions.

  4. Chuck M. says:

    (I’ve changed my email address)
    ” it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it,”
    Always seemed like such a dreamy platitude. What’s it look like when “the People” decide to abolish their government? And what’s the critical mass needed to activate that?
    Right now we have a fraction of Americans, a dwindling fraction I think, who’ve already met that bar and, since they’re not getting any more popular, are prepared to use force to abolish that government (apparently with their swords and blunderbusses and boat parades). Did our wise and wonderful framers really think we the People would move en bloc to fire everyone at the Capitol? And then what?
    Anyway, thank you for the essay; very interesting read and interpretation. I like how we’ve aged (for the most part).

  5. AlaskaReader says:

    As for ambiguities in the writings, the amendments, say particularly Section 3 of the 14th Amendment to the United States Constitution, reads as plainly definitive, seeming to my mind not ambiguous by any stretch of the imagination.
    In defiance of that definitiveness, I’ve not heard any of the strict Constitutionalists calling for strict adherence, …and why am I not surprised…

  6. jaango1 says:

    The notion of “Nature” God, could be simplified into the “God’s Ambition.” And from a person’s perspective, that being Indigenous, Ambition says it pretty much correctly.

    [FYI – your username has been edited to match that used in your previous comments. I don’t believe you intended your RL name to appear, did you? /~Rayne]

    • jaango1 says:


      [You did it again, jaango1, I’ve had to edit your username. Clear your browser’s cache and manually overwrite the correct username with your next comment. /~Rayne]

  7. bmaz says:

    “The history of that change of perception is important, because it tells us that we as a nation can change.”

    What I deeply fear is the movement for another constitutional convention. And, trust me, there is a serious movement for just that by radical “conservatives”. As in pretty much every solid red state already supports it.

    Would like to say it is amusing when people on the left call for a wholesale redoing of the constitution, but instead their naïveté is absolutely terrifying, it will NEVER work out the way any even halfway liberal person desires. It would be catastrophic. “How” the nation changes is critically important. Be very careful of what you ask for.

    • jaango1 says:

      For the past few years, I have been predicting that the Democrats, writ large, will be solely focused on “progressives” given that in the next ten years or so, the majority of the voters aligned with the Democratic Party, will have to confront our nation’s pending demographics. Thus, the political arena will constitute of national defense and security via the “conservatives versus the progressives.”

      And yes, all heel of hell, will be contentious.

    • Peterr says:

      Since 1962, the Missouri state constitution requires that the following question be posed to the voters every twenty years: “Shall there be a convention to revise and amend the constitution?” This came up last November, and went down 67/33. I was greatly relieved once the results came in, but terribly worried because of fears that the rural right wing would seize on this as a chance to remake things in Jefferson City.

      I share your fears about a serious movement among conservatives to call a constitutional convention. There are plenty here in MO that would get behind that call, but given last November’s results on our ballot question, they’d rather someone else do the real work.

      And *that* is where the danger lies.

      If you think dark money is a problem now, can you imagine what would be spent to influence a CC? ALEC and similar groups would be salivating at the opportunities that would await them.

      • earlofhuntingdon says:

        Len Leo would blow his whole budget on it. For fascists, it would be like inventing cheap, sustainable fusion: a never-ending source of power.

      • Rayne says:

        We can question how much the right-wing might spend, but we should take note at what they’ve already spent — we are where we are today because the right-wing has spend decades and billions to move toward a theocratic autocracy, the achievement of which a constitutional convention would assure if a trifecta across the White House and Congress didn’t.

        This is not a movement which will die out easily. It must be driven into the ground, staked, and beheaded, its grave strewn with salt.

        • earlofhuntingdon says:

          Well said. The seemingly endless number of billionaire-backed right-wing consultants, think tanks, foundations, co-opted departments and even whole universities that have been erected since the Nixon era (but which portray themselves as part of the firmament), seem bent on what you describe as theocratic autocracy and its undying commitment to unbridled capitalism. “All Hail the Freedom of Child Labor!” might as well be their motto, in that it encapsulates so many of their real priorities.

    • earlofhuntingdon says:

      Regarding the inalienable rights some proponents of a CC assume would be left untouched, I would note the international character of creeping fascism, much of it backed by Russian oligarchs and many of their western counterparts.

      The usual examples cited are Hungary and Poland. But in Britain, the Tories want to throw out – in essence and via a single piece of legislation – the body of UK law enacted to comply with EU rules. That includes its data privacy regime.

      They also want to withdraw the UK from the European Convention on Human Rights – “to reclaim Parliamentary sovereignty.” It was only enacted into UK law via the Human Rights Act of 1998. Art. 4 of the ECHR contains the current prohibition of slavery and servitude. What the Tories would replace it with is likely to be as sound as any promise by Boris Johnson.

    • gmoke says:

      Common Cause and others ( are working diligently against a new Constitutional Convention, a so-called Article V convention. There are only 6 more states needed to agree to call one.

      A little after the Tea Party brouhaha started, I attended a conference on Article V conventions organized by Larry Lessig at Harvard Law School. Lessig tried to have a wide spectrum of people at the event and it ran from two different rabid Tea Party groups all the way over to traditional Democrats, which, I believe, was the extent of Lessig’s political imagination at the time (if I recall correctly, he said his first real political experience was working at the 1980 Republican Convention).

      The proceedings scared the hell out of me. The idea still does.

      • bmaz says:

        Yeah, it should scare the hell out of anybody and everybody. Lessig is an odd duck; pleasant, but a bit goofy and I bet the idea of rewriting the constitution appeals to him. Which is also scary.

        • Rayne says:

          Lessig is academic, comfortable with abstractions; he doesn’t have a good grasp of the gritty realities of politics and power.

        • bmaz says:

          Pretty much no grasp of the realities of the practice of law. And that has been evident forever on a wide range of things.

        • gmoke says:

          Lessig, whatever his other faults, is a very, very good, engaged and engaging teacher based upon the few times I’ve seen him lecture.

    • earthworm says:

      replying to bmaz:
      this was borne out in Chile’s recent attempt to draw up a new constitution. it was rejected by a heavy majority, i believe, pleasing large swathes of neither left or right.

      • Matt___B says:

        From what I understand (I have friends who are Chilean), the original impetus was to be rid of once and for all remaining remnants of the still-in-force Pinochet-rewritten constitution. So Chile has already had more than one constitution, the most recent one being the one Pinochet forced down the Chilean peoples’ throats during his dictatorship. It has been amended since he left office (and consequently died) but his framework is still in there.

        Complicating this, Chile just elected a millenial left-wing president (Boric) to replace a corrupt billionaire businessman president (Pinera), so the ideological whiplash in Chile’s federal government is pretty pronounced lately. The proposed new constitution included provisions for giving some land back to Chile’s aboriginal people (the Mapuche), as autonomous and self-governing regions (like Navajo and Hopi here) and that was probably what broke the back on the new constitution vote – too much change too fast, too many progressive kitchen-sink ideological provisions that rattled both the moderate middle-class and the reactionary Pinochetistas (of whom there are still many – consider them to be the MAGA class there).

        Like many countries today, Chile is currently in the midst of serious socio-political turmoil…

  8. Peterr says:

    When talking about the Declaration of Independence, we need to keep in mind the audience for which it was written. Jefferson states this right at the top, before getting to those more famous “we hold these truths . . .” words that follow (emphasis added):

    When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

    In other words, this was a foreign policy document, aimed at securing support from other nations in the war against England, or at least getting them to remain neutral in the conflict. Jefferson drives this home at the end of the introduction:

    The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world. . . .

    He lays out the three charges: injuries, usurpations, and tyranny. He follows this with 18 bullet points, each laying out one example of these facts — except for point #13 which assails the king for conspiring with parliament to enact various “Acts of pretended legislation” each of which carries its own abuse and harm. To this point, Jefferson gives *nine* separate examples. Jefferson is handing up an indictment of King George, and laying it before the nations of the world.

    This is not to say that Jefferson was *not* concerned with how it would be received in the various colonies, and the various amendments to his original draft are concerned with both the international and internal audiences (especially as regards references to slavery).

    This is akin to Winston Churchill speaking at Westminster College or John F. Kennedy at the Berlin Wall. All three leaders — Winston, John, and Thomas — were attempting to shape the international struggles between various nations.

    • Epicurus says:

      Philip Bobbitt’s The Shield of Achilles addresses the shaping of international struggles between European nations from 1555 onward. He spends a great deal of the book describing the transforming judicial/constitutional doctrines that legitimated European change as such nations evolved and how it spread. Jefferson’s Declaration echoes the writings of Emmerich de Vattel. Vattel’s constitutional doctrine is noted in the Federalist Papers and in the Supreme Court case McCullough v. Maryland. And he was the son of a Protestant minister!

    • Ed Walker says:

      Roosevelt makes Peterr’s point: a principal goal of the Declaration was to deal with foreign nations. Hopefully they would support the colonists, but at least Jefferson hoped to keep them out of the war.

      • Peterr says:

        In hindsight, it is clear I had a number of seriously lefty teachers growing up. My fifth grade teacher in Illinois made it clear about the shift Lincoln made in how he used the Declaration of Independence that you discuss above, and my high school teachers were good at painting the “big picture” vision of the declaration in the context of 18th century Great Powers battles. (And don’t get me started on my series of PhD holding feminist English teachers, who were uniformly great. One example: lots of HS kids read Beowolf, but we also read John Gardner’s Grendel — and cried when we learned of Gardner’s sudden death. Even the kids who struggled to pass thought they were special.)

        I was honestly stunned when I got to college and discovered that most of my classmates had never heard, let alone entertained, this understanding of history.

        • Greg Hunter says:

          Public education was far better during the time of a constricted labor force. We have not recognized the forces that created an excellent K-12 experience and addressed it.

          Really the best investment any society could ever make and while it is not enshrined in our founding documents, society made it a priority. That principle is declining at an alarming rate.

          I would like to say education will create a lefty and it does but lots of really bad things are learned at home which are never really challenged at school.

  9. Attygmgm says:

    Thanks to Ed for another thoughtful reflection and to the erudite commentary. And good for the country that over time a principle of equality has been drawn from a document that didn’t fully mean it at the time. On good days I marvel that a country founded on so many unequal presumptions has also managed, over time, to create tools to challenge many of those inequities.

    Ed’s piece also brought to my mind two things. First, Samuel Johnson’s 1775 observation, “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of the negroes?” And second, nearly 90 years later, but well before the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, the exchange under a flag of truce between Union Gen. Butler and a Confederate officer, early in the civil war (the “war of northern aggression” as phrased by many southerners). Butler had given refuge to some escaped slaves who had made it to his line in Virginia. Under flag of truce the Confederate officer had come to confer with Butler, to demand the slaves be returned. Butler, a lawyer, argued that since the Confederates regarded the slaves as property, Butler was keeping them as confiscated contraband of war.

    I share bmaz’s prediction that a constitutional convention would be a disaster, should it occur. And would do much inherent damage even if 3/4ths of the states didn’t ratify the disastrous result.

  10. Rayne says:

    Bah. “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law” could be libertarians’ motto.

    It’s really much worse than that. If one willed to kill someone because doing so made them feel free and brought them happiness, is that the law?

    “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” are qualified by the rest of the preamble, specifically by the belief that all men possess the same rights and therefore one’s life, liberty, pursuit of happiness ends where it impinges on another man’s right to the same. Crowley added no such limits to his “do what thou wilt.”

    • Rayne says:

      And yet the love the Victorian Englishman Crowley referred to had strong sexual connotations — eros, not agape, philia, or storge. The use of the word thelema is the most obvious clue; the second clue is the qualification that love is under will or submissive to it.

      You want to drag the occult into this? Wicca’s Rede or philosophy is and has been “An ye harm none, do what ye will.” Notice how the indivisible (inalienable, if you will) qualification of harming none comes first and is a component of the rede itself. It’s not an afterthought, not a reply left to the congregants.

      Don’t give me that bullshit projection shit; I can’t even believe you brought up that occult-wannabe as part of a discussion about the founding of the U.S. I’ll admit a mistake here: I should have booted your first comment mentioning Crowley because it really has nothing to do with this topic given his birth 100 years after the Declaration of Independence in England.

      • bmaz says:

        Here is you last night:

        “If you research the topic, you will find the truth to be the opposite. Whenever Crowley wrote “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law”, he (almost always) followed it with “Love is the law, love under will”.

        If any Thelemite were to say “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law”, every single Thelemite in the room will reply “Love is the law, love under will”.

        People project their Shadow on Crowley, that’s just what people do, and the joke is on them.”

        Seriously, you are going to dig in and go to war over this stupid “Thelema” shit? Rayne is right, it is occult gibberish, and it has no place in Ed’s thread on the American Constitution. Should people be guided by Harry Potter too? Take that bunk elsewhere.

        • bmaz says:

          Frankly Scarlett, I don’t give a damn what you do. Take your “bigotry” allegation and shove it deep where there is no sunshine. Don’t worry about leaving, you are already done.

          [He can’t see this because the comment to which you are replying has been deleted. :-) /~Rayne]

      • Bill B(Not Barr) says:

        Thank you Rayne. I never heard of storge before, even though I was very familiar with the others. I wonder why it was missed in the texts I read.

  11. gmoke says:

    Always thought that “all men are created equal” meant “under the law.” Or that everyone has an equal right to impartial justice.

    Not that this proposition has ever been accomplished.

    The idea that it meant everyone has equal abilities has always seemed to me a strawman of prodigious dimensions.

    • Rayne says:

      This is not a particularly well thought out comment. Re-read the preamble carefully, particularly the top bit because everything else flows from it:

      “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, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, …

      The creation of government and the laws which delineate it *follow* fundamental truths: men are equal (they are all humans who arrive the same way, not that they are clones), they already had rights on their arrival via their creation. The law establishing government should reflect this.

      The founders thought this should be obvious, too, since they called it “self-evident.” Clearly it’s not evident to you.

      That the law and the government formed by it in this country doesn’t fully recognize and support inherent equal rights has been and remains our challenge.

      • dpa3.14159 says:

        Can’t find the link at the moment but my understanding is that Jefferson’s first draft used “We hold these truths to be sacred” and Ben Franklin’s notes on that draft crossed out the word “sacred” and replaced it with “self-evident.”

        This was terminology used in the scientific community of the day to define mathematical “truths,” like the 3 angles of a triangle add up to 180 degrees: a self-evident truth. Contrast this with the population of Philadelphia, which is knowable, can be counted, but which is not a self-evident truth. In making this edit Franklin attempted to give a scientific rather than religious rational to the document.

        • Rayne says:

          Yeah, I can read Wikipedia, too, which makes reference to that change in the draft. The final version used the word “sacred” once, in the final sentence and in regard to the signatories’ honor. This limited use conveyed more emphasis on the degree of commitment these men shared, knowing that as they signed this they also signed their death warrants.

          It may not have been a scientific rational as much as an expression of the respect conveyed for the common rights and values for which they were willing to fight. In today’s English they might have said it was “obvious” but that word was not used as commonly, nor did it convey what “sacred” did — the opposite of profane, instead something esteemed both in terms of the subject and the beholding audience. They appreciated their target audience’s perspective, believing that as equals they shared the same one in which their natures and rights were respected, thus self-evident.

        • dpa3.14159 says:

          Rayne, at 70 my memory is not as sharp as it once was, or at least I think it was. I thought I had picked up that anecdote, maybe from David McCullough’s John Adams book. As mentioned, I could not find a link, so perhaps not. The term “self-evident” had a specific meaning in the scientific circles of the day, of which Franklin was a participant. Thanks for your excellent reply.

        • Rayne says:

          Oh shucks, I should have ordered McCullough’s book while I was in Alibris just now. I’ll add that to my list, thanks.

  12. rattlemullet says:

    The Declaration of Independence was a singular act of rebellion, after ratification, read publicly in Boston on July 18th 1776. The intent was a declaration of war against the King. Men now must be mobilized to act.

    Quoting Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, “Four days after the reading, the Boston Committee of Correspondence ordered the townsmen to show up on the Common for a military draft. The rich, it turned out, could avoid the draft by paying for substitutes; the poor had to serve. This led to rioting, and shouting: “Tyranny is Tyranny let it come from whom it may.”

    Regarding slavery, I think that slavery has just been transformed in the 20th Century and the 21st Century into its modern form by keeping people in poverty. Perhaps the actual chains, shackles and whips have disappeared but the bondage of poverty I’m sure feel very similar to those force to live in it.

    • bmaz says:

      Jeebus, you waltz in here and for your very first comment engage in common grammar scolding of an author here? And, as Rayne noted, you did so wrongly, and not just as to modern usage, but “inalienable” was used in most of the early drafts. Do better.

    • bmaz says:

      Counterpoint: West Wing also had an episode that featured pie in the sky Lessig trying to write a new constitution for a foreign country. It was cringeworthy, but very Sorkinesque.

  13. Time Enough says:

    The article immediately reminded me of the book “American Creation” by James Ellis. Ellis does not shy away from the fact that many of the founding fathers owned slaves, and that slavery was a significant economic (and social) institution in the early years of the country.
    He argues that the Founders (chapter 1 is about the Declaration of Independence) were aware of the contradiction between their ideals of liberty and the institution of slavery, but were ultimately unable to resolve it. (He also suggested that the Declaration was also a deliberate, strategic move to gain support from other nations).

    In a later chapter on the Louisiana Purchase, the acquisition of new territory raised questions about the expansion of slavery into these new regions. He suggests that while some of the founders (including Jefferson) hoped that slavery would eventually die out on its own, while others felt it would require deliberate action.

    I found it a very interesting book, in general, but his take on how the founders dealt with slavery I felt was especially inspired.

    • Rayne says:

      Thanks for that. I’ve read Ellis’ ‘Founding Brothers’ but not ‘American Creation’.

      Just dawned on me the one I really need to read in tandem with Ed’s work on the Second Found is another of Ellis’ works, ‘The Quartet: Orchestrating the Second American Revolution, 1783-1789’.

      Looks like another visit with my Alibris account today. LOL

  14. Franktoo says:

    Ed: Different writers can put different historical facts together to paint different pictures, but one is better off looking at the pictures painted by professional historians. Law school professors like Kermit Roosevelt, with no advanced training in history, may paint stories that support a particular “client”. You might want to consult the National Constitution Center’s program on “Slavery and Liberty at America’s Founding with three history professors of different political persuasions. Hearing the agreement and disagreement from multiple perspectives is a rare opportunity. Or the book written by one of them: “American Inheritance: Liberty and Slavery in the Birth of a Nation, 1765-1795”, an NYT Editor’s Choice written by a Pulitzer Prize-winning author. They may or may not convince you that the idealism of the Declaration put Northern States on the road to abolition of slavery, though that was gradual in some states. For example, the 1780 Constitution of Massachusetts said that “All men are born free and equal, and have certain natural, essential, and inalienable rights … ” In 1781, a slave sued for and won her freedom using this clause. Two years later, Massachusetts’ highest court found slavery inconsistent with the state’s constitution. Slavery was banned in the Northwest Territory and (IIRC) a bill banning slavery in all territories fell one absent legislator short of passing. Was the US constitution a pro-slavery or anti-slavery document? They argued that it could be seen as a messy, deliberately-ambiguous compromise that could win approval in both the pro-slavery South and an already anti-slavery North. Ambiguity implies others can easily see a different picture.

    • Ed Walker says:

      Thanks for this suggestion; I’ll listen to the podcast.

      As you can see from the introduction to this series, link above, I’m reading this book together with Eric Foner’s book on the Second Founding. This history is complex, as we see in the discussion of the Somerset case above.

      I’m pretty sure there is no one perspective that can capture the complexities of a mass movement. It’s more likely that different people had different motives for participating. The standard story we get in school is just one perspective. It’s a nice one, but as adults maybe we can handle some complexity and ambicuity.

  15. Fedupin10 says:

    Thomas Jefferson’s choice of words in the Declaration of Independence are either his greatest accomplishment or his biggest mistake.

    The language of universal suffrage and equal rights were truly epic at the time. Most (if not all) of the Forefathers’ motivation was to secure their rights from the King and were self serving. Did Jefferson believe these Universal rights were limited to his class or did he let the others assume they were, so that some day paupers, slaves and minorities could use the Law to force America to live up to the promises of this document?

    Either Jefferson was as deluded as his compatriots or he planted a time bomb he knew would eventually challenge the aristocracy.

  16. Martin_21MAR2023_1436h says:

    There are two books not brought up here that are definitive on the subject.
    The first is William Darity and Kirsten Mullen’s 2020 second edition of “ From Here to Equality: The Case for Reparations for Black Americans.” It’s a brilliant book, extremely well- researched and -written, and basically clears the field on the subject. Not that reparations stands a chance in this fading colonial empire, but anything less than reparations is insulting to the monumental history and the continued effects of slavery as is seen in the back-white wealth divide.
    The other book I’ve already commended here is Robert Ovetz’s “We the Elites: How the US Constitution Serves the Few.” There are certainly some very informed and knowledgeable readers in this comment section, so why not challenge yourselves with these two bracing, up-to-date masterful critiques?

    [Welcome back to emptywheel. Please choose and use a unique username with a minimum of 8 letters. We are moving to a new minimum standard to support community security. Because your username is shared with other community members it will be temporarily changed to match the date/time of your first know comment until you have a new compliant username. Thanks. /~Rayne]

  17. WhiteTiger says:

    Dear Ed,

    I regret that an 18 month moving process caused me to miss your series on The Dawn of Everything, something I really wanted to participate in. (It didn’t help that I also couldn’t think of a new user name. I finally just fell back on using an artifact from my online identity)

    I ordered both of the books this new series will address after listening to the podcast with Professor Roosevelt. Contemplating an entirely different origin story for the USA has the promise of limiting my doom scrolling of contemporary news. As my move is still not complete in the sense that settling in is an ongoing process, I can only state my intention to try to keep up here. Hopefully, posting this will give me some added impetus to come here for respite.

    As far as the various language and interpretation debates around these issues goes, it is part of my training to understand that all language is contingent to time and place, author and reader/s. In addition, there will never be a written history which is not ideological and framed inside identifiable tropes which reveal little of the history but lots about the historian.

    With that in mind, I have long ruminated on the obvious hypocrisy of Jefferson’s first words in The Declaration. I believe Jefferson to be plagued by his own worst angels (e.g. Sally Hemmings) while attracted to some ideal he could never hope to close on, something, which along with his brilliance, fascinates me.

    So, for me, “all men are created equal” almost certainly meant different things inside Jefferson’s mind depending on what was foremost in his consciousness.

    It is easy for me to believe he meant at different moments:

    1. All white men of property are created equal
    2. All free men are created equal
    3. All men and women are created equal (not as likely but still possible)
    4. All humans are created equal

    or any number of other related notions.

    Jefferson’s words aside, I find Roosevelt’s proposition that American history begins with Reconstruction disturbing, fascinating and “truthy.” It frightens me that his notion could provide more ammunition for right wing fascists who will paint anyone deploying this theory as unpatriotic. Flying in the face of a national myth seems like an unnecessary burden in these trying times.

    Finally, we do need a new constitution, but we cannot risk a convention while the fascists and stupid and stupid fascists have this much cultural capital. This is just one more American tragedy, one more thing we need to do but cannot because of a cornucopia of chaos. Sometimes I really wish that the North had just let the South go its way. To this day, the North sends its taxes to the red states because they need economic support.

    I fled back to my adopted state of California in retirement to get as far as I could from red hooligans and under the umbrella of more enlightened policies.

    formerly, Ramona

    • Epicurus says:

      Jefferson pretty much poached his words from George Mason and Mason’s initial drafting of the Virginia Constitution written before the Declaration of Independence.

      The current Article 1, Bill of Rights, Section 1, Equality of Rights and Men, in Virginia’s Constitution reads as follows:

      “That all men are by nature equally free and independent and have certain inherent rights, of which, when they enter into a state of society, they cannot, by any compact, deprive or divest their posterity; namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.”

      Mason wouldn’t sign the original Constitution because it didn’t have a Bill of Rights. Mason and Jefferson knew each other well. People would be better off reading about George Mason and why he used the words he did to understand why Jefferson used Mason’s words.

      • WhiteTiger says:

        People poach phrase all the time and in doing so, usually change the meaning in some way. So while this is interesting information, I do not see why it should tell us much about Jefferson’s thinking. For that matter, how can we determine what Mason meant? I am not being linguistically nihilistic; I am simply pointing out that we really can’t make words stand still and nail their meanings to the wall in any particular instance without a lot of evidence.

        My mentors defined their terms explicitly and very carefully, but they are still misinterpreted more than not.

    • Ed Walker says:

      In a podcast, Historian Saul Cornell says approximately
      “If you can’t get your head around something [in history], it’s a good sign that you’re not being a good historian because the whole job of being a historian is trying to get your head around things that don’t make sense to us but made sense to them.”

      Cornell says what you say about language in the context of being a historian. I’m not an historian. For me the question is what can I learn about today by thinking about the past. We humans created society as it is today. We should try to understand why they did things the way they did in the hopes of making things better, which is our duty as citizens.

      Welcome back, and I hope you find time to comment.

      • WhiteTiger says:

        And for me, understanding how we got here is central to understanding how we make things better, and we really, really need to make things better.

        One of my mentors, a philosopher of history, taught me that the simplest history was a chronology, but that even a chronology chose a selection of events, not all events (which would be impossible in any case).

        Mainstream historians were very uncomfortable with what he demonstrated because they could not pretend they were just narrating and not selecting.

        I “believe” historians the same way I believe people I know to be trustworthy, but everyone selects what they include in a narrative.

        So Roosevelt is particularly interesting as he makes it plain that he is choosing a different origin myth, one that redounds to an enlightened perspective. Admitting that the USA was an entirely different entity under slavery, that we were not really us, is obvious and yet not acknowledged. Another mentor taught me that the most profound insights seemed obvious once they were articulated but that there were many who dismissed what seemed obvious as easy to divine. I think Roosevelt may have an insight which seems obvious, but only in retrospect. It is obvious that the USA was a different country after 1865 but not understood that this should change our origin myth. When we look at our history this way, it makes us not a young country, but an infant country. After all, my grandparents were born not long before 1900. That is a split second ago. If we are really a baby in a bassinet, what does that mean? We have done enormous damage and enormous good in that split second.

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