December 19, 2012 2:13:45 PM
One of the most influential documents in our nation's history has never had the force of law. As one book about the Declaration of Independence was titled, the Declaration is "American scripture," summarizing aspirations and inspiring actions but not legally enacting or enforcing them. Yet the famous document has been socially, historically, and legally influential, and its influence is charted in For Liberty and Equality: The Life and Times of the Declaration of Independence (Oxford University Press) by law professor Alexander Tsesis. The book, in examining the influence of the Declaration, gives a history of the United States through the lens of its ringing endorsement of human equality and the rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. We have often failed to live up to its ideals, but Tsesis shows that in many ways the Declaration has been more influential than our nuts-and-bolts Constitution.
Tsesis spends little time on the composition of the Declaration itself, although throughout his history he reminds us of what happened to the physical document. It is now well protected, although it has been mishandled and was for thirty-five years on display under the sunlight coming through a window of a U.S. Patent office. The Declaration starts famously stating its purpose for being, and then lists those basic rights which may have been given by a Creator but which must be secured by governments, and then in its longest section it enumerates the colonies' complaints against Britain. It was not long before Britons began complaining that the document was hypocritical, with Dr. Johnson wondering that the "drivers of Negroes" should so loudly yelp for liberty, and other writers finding foolish the proposition that all were created equal. Before the Constitution was in place, the Declaration (which was signed eleven years before) defined "the character of a national community committed to protecting people's life, liberty, property, and pursuit of happiness." There were calls for its provisions to be drawn into Constitutional law, but other than providing philosophical underpinnings, this did not happen. We still cite the importance of equality, as our founders did, but we may forget that for many Americans who were dedicated to independence, the Declaration was not only a statement of sovereignty for a new nation, but also a demand that governments protect the rights of all regardless of social standing. The Declaration was a blow against a monarchy, but also against the aristocracy connected to it.
Naturally most of the pages of Tsesis's book have to do with race relations, from slavery through the civil war and to the civil rights era. The contradiction between the Declaration's ringing words about equality and liberty being written by the slaveholder Thomas Jefferson are of course examined. Jefferson had, in fact, drafted a Declaration that indicted George III for forcing the slave trade on Americans, but the Continental Congress eliminated this part to avoid offending deep South states. The irony is present in all the subsequent episodes of Americans trying to make the words of the Declaration true. When in 1808 the federal government prohibited the importation of slaves, Jefferson backed the legislation, arguing that the Declaration's assertion of human rights were applicable to "all members of the human family." Opponents of the new law, however, cited the complaints section, which included George III's "... cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world." The federal government was doing the same thing, said the slave dealers, in preventing their fair commerce. After all, the argument went, the Constitution itself recognized slavery. The Constitution's allowance of extra representatives on the basis of a count of slaves that had no representation, or its Insurrection Clause that required the federal government to suppress slave rebellions, meant that antislavery forces would denounce the Constitution while elevating the Declaration. The abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, while lauding the Declaration at a Fourth of July celebration, burned a copy of the Constitution and decried it as "a covenant with death and an agreement with hell." On the other side, a preacher in Alabama simply scoffed at the Declaration's claim of equalities, writing that it was neither a truth nor self-evident that all men are created equal. There was an "original inequality" between blacks and whites that God had himself ordained. The preacher trusted the Declaration's statements of grievances against England, but not "these imaginary maxims" about supposedly self-evident truths.
In the Jacksonian era, proslavery forces would claim that the Declaration itself was faulty, that it was "filled with faux generalities rather than substantive promises." When Texas wrote its own Declaration of Independence in 1836, it endorsed slavery. In opposition, John Quincy Adams wrote of the Texas Declaration, "I know well that the doctrine of the Declaration of Independence, that 'all men are born free and equal,' is there held as incendiary doctrine and deserves lynching." The words of the Declaration were incorporated into the rhetoric about the Missouri Compromise and the fugitive slave laws. Frederick Douglass lamented that Fourth of July celebrations included readings of the lofty language of the Declaration, with blacks annually hearing "the absurd prating about American liberty and equal rights" while they were "a living and suffering witness to American oppression and wrong." When civil war loomed, a senator from Indiana said that people from Africa had half the brains of people from Europe, and that no racial equality existed, despite the Declaration: "He is not my equal. There is no truth in this declaration." Some Southerners would insist that the Declaration's claim of all men being equal was a simple cause for war, but they also cited the complaints in the Declaration against King George, insisting that these were the same sorts of complaints they had against the Union, and had the same moral force towards a fight for independence. Decades later, the Ku Klux Klan would champion the parts of the Declaration it liked. A Methodist minister in Wisconsin, for instance, said that the KKK's vigilantism was a legitimate way "to protect its people in the pursuit of happiness." Klan documents agreed with declarations of equality, but extended it only to whites, and then not to Catholics or Jews.
While the citing of the Declaration on both sides of racial arguments takes up most of the book, the document was part of other social battles as well. That all men were created equal was taken literally by those who believed in the Declaration but declined to have the equality extended to women. In the nineteenth century as women sought equality and suffrage, an article in the Yale Literary Magazine said that women were rightly excluded from any declaration of equality because they were, like slaves or children or criminals, "such a motley multitude" that letting them rule was simply unimaginable. Harriet Martineau cited the Declaration's "consent of the governed" ideal when she pointed out the unfairness of expecting women to obey the law while at the same time denying their political rights. Those opposed to suffrage insisted that the men who voted on the Declaration saw no reason to include women in it. Workers would insist that their rights to the pursuit of happiness could not be enjoyed without minimum wages or maximum work hours or regulation of child labor. Anarchists justified insurrection because by it they intended to secure "the natural rights proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence." The principles within the Declaration were brought into rhetoric when we colonized the Philippines, or when we reservationed the Indians, but seem to have been muted when we placed Japanese citizens into interment camps during World War II.
After WWII, the Declaration was used as a foundation for the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The general statements of the Declaration of Independence were made specific and expanded, as the UN Declaration literally included women's rights, children's rights, the right to work, the right to travel, and so on. The novelty of insisting that people are equal and have rights just because they are human creatures is gone, but the aspirations contained in the Declaration have proved to be an inspiration far beyond what its authors could have predicted. Tsesis has provided a history to make us wonder at the power of the Declaration's ideas, and our imperfect but continuing efforts to bring them into full being.