The new intellectual fashion on the academic Left, which makes as much sense as mascara on nostril hair, is to argue that when the founders declared American independence, they were heading off “domestic insurrection”—the possibility of slave revolts, and with them the possibility that “all men are created equal.” The Declaration itself was not written with all men in mind, you see, nor intended to include them, but was meant to apply only to white men.
Quite apart from what I think of this newly fashionable argument, the fact is that it’s not even new.
As Abraham Lincoln reminded his audiences, the notion that the Declaration excluded black folk became the stock-in-trade of slaveholders and white supremacists—for example, Senators Alexander Stephens of Georgia and Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois—only after 1854, when the question of slavery became the central issue in American politics.
Imagine my surprise, then, to read Robert G. Parkinson’s op-ed in today’s 4th of July Times. This professor’s serene confidence in the unproven assumption that the founders were downright afraid of equality and inclusion—this confidence makes me think he’ll be celebrating today by lecturing his family and friends on why he won’t be going to see the fireworks. Here’s an excerpt.
“For more than two centuries, we have been reading the Declaration of Independence wrong. Or rather, we’ve been celebrating the Declaration as people in the 19th and 20th centuries have told us we should, but not the Declaration as Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and John Adams wrote it. To them, separation from Britain was as much, if not more, about racial fear and exclusion as it was about inalienable rights. . . .
“The Declaration could have been what we yearn for it to be, a statement of universal rights, but it wasn’t. . . . We like to excuse the founders from this [idea of racial fear and exclusion], to give them a pass. After all, there is that bit about everyone being “created equal” in this, the most important text of American history and identity. . . . [my italics]
“All the African-Americans and Indians who supported the revolution—and lots did—were no match against the idea that they were all ‘merciless savages’ and ‘domestic insurrectionists.’ . . . Americans since 1776 have operated time and time again on the assumption that blacks and Indians don’t belong in this republic. This notion comes from the very founders we revere this weekend. It haunts us still.”
Actually, this notion comes not from the founders, but from later interpretations of the Declaration and Constitution, from jurists and politicians who feared the ideological implications of these documents—from people like John C. Calhoun, Stephen A. Douglas, and Alexander Stephens. And now, from people like Professor Parkinson, who need, for reasons only their shrink can explain, to believe that the founders had no stake and no interest in universal rights or in equality.
The founders meant “that bit” about equality. We know this because they passed Thomas Jefferson’s Northwest Ordinance, which barred slavery from those trans-Appalachian territories that weren’t already settled, in 1784 and again in 1789.. It was the slaveholders and the white supremacists who insisted that black folk had no part in the founding, and that the equality of all men was a self-evident lie. Et tu, Professor Parkinson?
Lincoln got it right. Before 1854, no one except Calhoun could get away with saying that the Declaration applied only to white men. Here’s how he put it, in debate with Douglas.
“I believe the entire records of the world, from the date of the Declaration of Indpendence up to within three years ago, may be searched in vain for one single affirmation, from one single man, that the negro was not included in the Declaration of Independence; I think I may defy Judge Douglas to show that he ever said so, that Washington ever said so, that any president ever said so, that any member of Congress ever said so, or that any living man upon the whole earth ever said so, until the necessities of the present policy of the Democratic party, in regard to slavery, had to invent that affirmation.” (Charleston)
Lincoln wasn’t naïve about the meaning or the scope of equality, in 1776 or in 1858. Here’s what he said about it in the last debate with Douglas.
“Allow me, while upon this subject, briefly to present one other extract from a speech of mine, made more than a year ago, at Springfield, in discussing this very same question, soon after Judge Douglas took his ground that negroes were not included in the Declaration of Independence:
“I think the authors of that notable instrument intended to include all men, but they did not intend to declare all men equal in all respects. They did not mean to say that all men were equal in color, size, intellect, moral development, or social capacity. They defined with tolerable distinctness in what respects they did consider all men created equal — equal in certain inalienable rights, among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
“This they said, and this they meant. They did not mean to assert the obvious untruth, that all were then actually enjoying that equality, nor yet that they were about to confer it immediately upon them. In fact, they had no power to confer such a boon. They meant simply to declare the right, so that the enforcement of it might follow as fast as circumstances should permit.
“They meant to set up a standard maxim for free society which should be familiar to all and revered by all — constantly looked to, constantly labored for, and even, though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated; and thereby constantly spreading and deepening its influence and augmenting the happiness and value of life to all people, of all colors, everywhere.” (Alton)
This nation is always in need of a new birth of freedom—something else that Lincoln got right, in speaking about an epic battle that the Union Army won on the eve of the 4th of July, in 1863. But its founders knew that liberty couldn’t survive the end of equality, and they—Jefferson included—hoped that slavery was in the course of ultimate extinction when they declared their independence.
The new intellectual fashion on the academic Left—to assert without evidence that the founders intended to exclude black folk from the promise of the Declaration—is at least ironic, because it exhumes arguments once made by slaveholders and white supremacists before the Civil War. But irony presupposes a capacity to understand tragedy. This new fashion begins and ends as farce.