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Making Sense Of The Fourth Of July
The DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE is not what Thomas Jefferson thought it was when he wrote it—and that is why we celebrate it
July/August 1997 | Volume 48, Issue 4
And so an interpretation of the declaration that had emerged in the 1790s became ever more widely repeated. The equality that Sergeant and Sprague emphasized was not, however, asserted for the first time in the Declaration of Independence. Even before Congress published its Declaration, one revolutionary document after another had associated equality with a new American republic and suggested enough different meanings of that term—equal rights, equal access to office, equal voting power—to keep Americans busy sorting them out and fighting over inegalitarian practices far into the future. Jefferson, in fact, adapted those most remembered opening lines of the Declaration’s second paragraph from a draft Declaration of Rights for Virginia, written by George Mason and revised by a committee of the Virginia convention, which appeared in the Pennsylvania Gazette on June 12, 1776, the day after the Committee of Five was appointed and perhaps the day it first met. Whether on his own inspiration or under instructions from the committee, Jefferson began with the Mason draft, which he gradually tightened into a more compressed and eloquent statement. He took, for example, Mason’s statement that “all men are born equally free and independant,” rewrote it to say they were “created equal & independent,” and then cut out the “& independent.”
Jefferson was not alone in adapting the Mason text for his purposes. The Virginia convention revised the Mason draft before enacting Virginia’s Declaration of Rights, which said that all men were “by nature” equally free and independent. Several other states—including Pennsylvania (1776), Vermont (1777), Massachusetts (1780), and New Hampshire (1784)—remained closer to Mason’s wording, including in their state bill of rights the assertions that men were “born free and equal” or “born equally free and independent.” Unlike the Declaration of Independence, moreover, the state bills or “declarations” of rights became (after an initial period of confusion) legally binding. Americans’ first efforts to work out the meaning of the equality written into their founding documents therefore occurred on the state level.
In Massachusetts, for example, several slaves won their freedom in the 1780s by arguing before the state’s Supreme Judicial Court that the provision in the state’s bill of rights that all men were born free and equal made slavery unlawful. Later, in the famous case of Commonwealth v. Aves (1836), Justice Lemuel Shaw ruled that those words were sufficient to end slavery in Massachusetts, indeed that it would be difficult to find others “more precisely adapted to the abolition of negro slavery.” White Americans also found the equality provisions in their state bills of rights useful. In the Virginia constitutional convention of 1829–30, for example, a delegate from the trans-Appalachian West, John R. Cooke, cited that “sacred instrument” the Virginia Declaration of Rights against the state’s system of representing all counties equally in the legislature regardless of their populations and its imposition of a property qualification for the vote, both of which gave disproportional power to men in the eastern part of the state. The framers of Virginia’s 1776 constitution allowed those practices to persist despite their violation of the equality affirmed in the Declaration of Rights, Cooke said, because there were limits on how much they dared change “in the midst of war.” They therefore left it for posterity to resolve the inconsistency “as soon as leisure should be afforded them.” In the hands of men like Cooke, the Virginia Declaration of Rights became a practical program of reform to be realized over time, as the Declaration of Independence would later be for Abraham Lincoln.
But why, if the states had legally binding statements of men’s equality, should anyone turn to the Declaration of Independence? Because not all states had bills of rights, and not all the bills of rights that did exist included statements on equality. Moreover, neither the federal Constitution nor the federal Bill of Rights asserted men’s natural equality or their possession of inalienable rights or the right of the people to reject or change their government. As a result, contenders in national politics who found those old revolutionary principles useful had to cite the Declaration of Independence. It was all they had.