The Declaration of Independence in History, and Contested Meaning of America’s Self-Evident Truths
In an 1857 speech criticizing the Supreme Court decision in Dred Scott v. Sanford (1857), Abraham Lincoln commented that the principle of equality in the Declaration of Independence was “meant to set up a standard maxim for a free society.” That maxim, however, that the Declaration of Independence and its principles have been debated and contested throughout history.
American constitutional democracy needs vigorous deliberation and debate by citizens and their representatives. This civil and political dialogue helps Americans understand the principles and ideas upon which their country was founded and the means of working on achieving them. Indeed, throughout American history, many Americans appealed to the Declaration of Independence to make liberty and equality a reality for all.
In the 1770s and 1780s, enslaved persons in New England immediately appealed to the natural rights principles of the Declaration and state constitutions as they petitioned state legislatures and sued in state courts for freedom and the abolition of slavery. For example, a group of free blacks in New Hampshire stated, “That the God of nature gave them life and freedom, upon the terms of the most perfect equality with other men; That freedom is an inherent right of the human species, not to be surrendered, but by consent.” As a result, they won their freedom and helped to end slavery there.
The women and men who assembled at the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention for women’s rights adopted a Declaration of Rights and Grievances. The document was modeled after the Declaration of Independence, but changed the language to read, “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal.”
The Declaration of Independence was one of the centerpieces of the national debate over slavery. Abolitionists such as Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison all invoked the Declaration of Independence in denouncing slavery. Douglass stated that the Declaration “contains a true doctrine—that ‘all men are born equal.’” Douglass thought the document was an expression of the “eternal laws of the moral universe.” Garrison publicly burned the Constitution because he believed it to be a pro-slavery document, but always upheld the principles of the Declaration.
On the other hand, Senators Stephen Douglas and John Calhoun, Chief Justice Roger Taney, and Confederate vice-president Alexander Stephens all denied that the Declaration of Independence was meant to apply to black people. Calhoun thought slavery a “positive good” and asserted that the idea that all men are created equal was “the most false and dangerous of all political errors” because black persons were inferior and subordinate to the white race. Stephens stated,
“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…our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.”
Abraham Lincoln’s political philosophy and statesmanship was rooted upon the principles of the Declaration of Independence and their realization according to constitutional means. He consistently held that the Declaration of Independence had universal natural rights principles that were “applicable to all men and all time.” In his Gettysburg Address, Lincoln stated that the nation was “conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”
The expansion of American world power in the wake of the Spanish-American War of 1898 triggered another debate using the Declaration of Independence. Supporters of American expansion argued that the country would bring the ideals of liberty and self-government to those people who had not previously enjoyed them. On the other hand, anti-imperialists countered that American empire violated the Declaration of Independence by taking away the liberty of self-determination and consent from Filipinos and Cubans.
Politicians of differing perspectives viewed the Declaration in opposing ways during the early twentieth century. Progressives such as Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson argued that the principles of the Declaration of Independence were important for an earlier period in American history to gain independence from Great Britain and set up the new nation. However, they argued, modern America faced new challenges introduced by an industrial economy and needed a new set of principles based upon equality of condition.
Progressive John Dewey represented this line of thinking when he wrote,
“The ideas of Locke embodied in the Declaration of Independence were congenial to our pioneer conditions that gave individuals the opportunity to carve their own careers….But the majority who call themselves liberal today are committed to the principle that organized society must use its powers to establish the conditions under which the mass of individuals can possess actual as distinct from merely legal liberty.”
Modern conservatives such as President Calvin Coolidge argued that the ideals of the Declaration of Independence should be preserved and respected. On the 150th anniversary of the Declaration, Coolidge stated that the principles formed the American creed and were still the basis of American republican institutions. Coolidge was a conservative who wanted to preserve the past, “reaffirm and reestablish” American principles, and generate a “reverence and respect” for principles of the Declaration and American founding. They were still applicable regardless of how much society changed. Indeed, Americans needed to revere the principles precisely because of rapid social change.
Modern American social movements for justice and equality called upon the Declaration of Independence and its principles. For example, Martin Luther King, Jr., stated in his “I Have a Dream” speech:
“When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men – yes, black men as well as white men – would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
King demanded that the United States live up to its “sacred obligation” of liberty and equality for all.
The natural rights republican ideals of the Declaration of Independence influenced the creation of American constitutional government founded upon liberty and equality. They also shaped the expectations that a free people would live in a just society. Achieving those ideals has always been part of a robust and dynamic debate among the sovereign people and their representatives.
Tony Williams is a Senior Fellow at the Bill of Rights Institute and is the author of six books including Washington and Hamilton: The Alliance that Forged America with Stephen Knott. Williams is currently writing a book on the Declaration of Independence.
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The principles outlined in the Declaration, as in the constitution, are timeless and unchanging. As true today as the day they were written.