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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
The sacred stature given the declaration after 1815 made it extremely useful for causes attempting to seize/.c the moral high ground in public debate. Beginning about 1820, workers, farmers, women’s rights advocates, and other groups persistently used the Declaration of Independence to justify their quest for equality and their opposition to the “tyranny” of factory owners or railroads or great corporations or the male power structure. It remained, however, especially easy for the opponents of slavery to cite the Declaration on behalf of their cause. Eighteenth-century statements of equality referred to men in a state of nature, before governments were created, and asserted that no persons acquired legitimate authority over others without their consent. If so, a system of slavery in which men were born the subjects and indeed the property of others was profoundly wrong. In short, the same principle that denied kings a right to rule by inheritance alone undercut the right of masters to own slaves whose status was determined by birth, not consent. The kinship of the Declaration of Independence with the cause of antislavery was understood from the beginning—which explains why gradual emancipation acts, such as those in New York and New Jersey, took effect on July 4 in 1799 and 1804 and why Nat Turner’s rebellion was originally planned for July 4, 1831.
Even in the eighteenth century, however, assertions of men’s equal birth provoked dissent. As slavery became an increasingly divisive issue, denials that men were naturally equal multiplied. Men were not created equal in Virginia, John Tyler insisted during the Missouri debates of 1820: “No, sir, the principle, although lovely and beautiful, cannot obliterate those distinctions in society which society itself engenders and gives birth to.” Six years later the acerbic, self-styled Virginia aristocrat John Randolph called the notion of man’s equal creation “a falsehood, and a most pernicious falsehood, even though I find it in the Declaration of Independence.” Man was born in a state of “perfect helplessness and ignorance” and so was from the start dependent on others. There was “not a word of truth” in the notion that men were created equal, repeated South Carolina’s John C. Calhoun in 1848. Men could not survive, much less develop their talents, alone; the political state, in which some exercised authority and others obeyed, was in fact man’s “natural state,” that in which he “is born, lives and dies.” For a long time the “false and dangerous” doctrine that men were created equal had lain “dormant,” but by the late 1840s Americans had begun “to experience the danger of admitting so great an error… in the declaration of independence,” where it had been inserted needlessly, Calhoun said, since separation from Britain could have been justified without it.
Five years later, in senate debates over the Kansas-Nebraska Act, Indiana’s John Pettit pronounced his widely quoted statement that the supposed “self-evident truth” of man’s equal creation was in fact “a self-evident lie.” Ohio’s senator Benjamin Franklin Wade, an outspoken opponent of slavery known for his vituperative style and intense patriotism, rose to reply. Perhaps Wade’s first and middle names gave him a special bond with the Declaration and its creators. The “great declaration cost our forefathers too dear,” he said, to be so “lightly thrown away by their children.” Without its inspiring principles the Americans could not have won their independence; for the revolutionary generation the “great truths” in that “immortal instrument,” the Declaration of Independence, were “worth the sacrifice of all else on earth, even life itself.” How, then, were men equal? Not, surely, in physical power or intellect. The “good old Declaration” said “that all men are equal, and have inalienable rights; that is, [they are] equal in point of right; that no man has a right to trample on another.” Where those rights were wrested from men through force or fraud, justice demanded that they be “restored without delay.”
LINCOLN BELIEVED THE Declaration “contemplated the progressive improvement in the condition of all men everywhere.” Otherwise, it was “mere rubbish.”
Abraham Lincoln, a little-known forty-four-year-old lawyer in Springfield, Illinois, who had served one term in Congress before being turned our of office, read these debates, was aroused as by nothing before, and began to pick up the dropped threads of his political career. Like Wade, Lincoln idealized the men of the American Revolution, who were for him “a forest of giant oaks,” “a fortress of strength,” “iron men.” He also shared the deep concern of his contemporaries as the “silent artillery of time” removed them and the “ living history ” they embodied from this world. Before the 1850s, however, Lincoln seems to have had relatively little interest in the Declaration of Independence. Then, suddenly, that document and its assertion that all men were created equal became his “ancient faith,” the “father of all moral principles,” an “axiom” of free society. He was provoked by the attacks of men such as Pettit and Calhoun. And he made the arguments of those who defended the Declaration his own, much as Jefferson had done with Mason’s text, reworking the ideas from speech to speech, pushing their logic, and eventually, at Gettysburg in 1863, arriving at a simple statement of pro-found eloquence. In time his understanding of the Declaration of Independence would become that of the nation.