The Declaration of Independence of July 4, 1776, gives Americans a holiday; as an intellectual document, it can give us a headache. Did its author, Thomas Jefferson, really mean what he wrote so eloquently? The proposition that “all men are created equal” was declared, and the term “declare” literally meant to “make clear”; yet we remain in the dark when reading its words. What does it mean for truths to be “self-evident” and for rights to be “inalienable”? And if the declaration justified the right to revolution, why has the United States historically been so opposed to revolution in other parts of the world? The declaration, in short, is a document of numerous ironies. One of them is that although it has become our charter of rights, liberties, and freedoms, much of the declaration was written in the language of determinism and inevitability, as though fate trumped free will. “When in the course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another,” announced the opening sentence, effectively claiming that the colonists had no choice but to separate from the mother country.
Jefferson, by enumerating the “long train of abuses” perpetrated by King George III, intended to suggest that the break was unavoidable. Instead of simply saying that they wanted to be free of domination and taxation, the colonists found it more psychologically satisfying to assert that England made them do something they really didn’t want to do. A Freudian might suggest that they felt not a little guilt in overthrowing authority and accusing the King of being a “tyrant” when he was actually just a bungler.
As Pauline Maier points out in her excellent American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence, some of the colonists themselves thought the term “tyrant” went too far. Pro-monarchist sentiment remained strong in America until 1775, when it was reported that the king had called the colonists “rebels,” whereupon they decided that reconciliation was out of the question.
Maier is the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of American History at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the author of several important books on the American Revolution. American Scripture is an outstanding work of research and analysis, written with grace and wit. In it, Maier discovers the great extent to which sentiment for separation existed throughout the colonies before the declaration. In the spring of 1776, cities and towns in New Jersey, Rhode Island, Maryland, and Massachusetts, among other colonies, all drew up resolutions advocating separate nationhood–following in the steps of Virginia, which had taken the lead in May 1775.
In that month, George Mason authored the “Declaration of Rights of Virginia.” A major contribution of Maier’s book is that it demonstrates how much of the Declaration of Independence was borrowed from Mason’s Virginia Declaration. Jefferson took certain ideas and expressions from Mason and refined them, turning, for example, “obtaining happiness” into “the pursuit of happiness.” Jefferson’s thoughts and sentiments, rather than being daringly original, were, Maier reports, “absolutely conventional among Americans of his time.”
American Scripture excels in its examination of the historical context surrounding the declaration, elucidating both how the document came to be written and how it was later interpreted. But the author leaves a theoretical dilemma unresolved, one that involves a central question addressed by historians of the period today: How could the ideals of the declaration be reconciled with the reality of Southern slavery?
According to Maier, the Virginia Convention amended Mason’s draft to make clear that the declaration excluded African-Americans. “All men are by nature equally free and independent,” the convention stated, and inalienable rights are not surrendered when people enter society. But “slaves had never entered Virginia’s society, which was confined to whites,” writes Maier, paraphrasing the reasoning of the time. By a specious twist of logic, blacks were thereby deemed to have no rights at all, not even the natural rights that one would think that they, like everyone else, were born with.
A braham Lincoln saw through the mendacity of such reasoning. Maier, along with Garry Wills and others, argues that Lincoln ignored Jefferson’s original intent when he extended the idea of equality and natural rights to blacks, and that, in so doing, he mythologized the declaration. That may be true, but the claim misses a larger point. Lincoln regarded the declaration as the “immortal emblem of humanity” for the entire world. The document was born in the blood and tears of revolution, and Lincoln reminded Americans that stories of the valiant struggle, which had the colonists taking on the greatest military power in the world, had once been told around the fireplace by veterans and ancestors while children listened in awe. This oral tradition became “a living history” that represented “a fortress of strength” and sustained the early republic. But, Lincoln lamented in 1838, “the silent artillery of time” had faded the images and silenced the voices of the past, and the glory of the revolution and the meaning of the declaration were no longer being seen and heard. Lincoln did misconstrue the declaration when he universalized it far beyond Jefferson’s intent. Yet the idea of equality that is so central to the document originates not with Lincoln but with the 17th-century English philosopher John Locke. And although Jefferson is commonly said to have been greatly influenced by Locke, in fact Lincoln’s reasoning was closer to Locke’s than Jefferson’s was. Locke insisted, when criticizing patriarchal rule, that men and women are not born into subjection, and that in the state of nature no one had the authority “to harm another’s life, liberty, and possessions.” Jefferson may not have wished to extend Lockeanism to the black race (or to women), but there was no reason why Lincoln could not do it for America.
When, in Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson came to the conclusion that blacks were “naturally inferior,” he was reasoning not according to nature or to Locke but to the conventions and biases of Virginian society. Lincoln recognized that society, not nature, breeds prejudices and other irrationalities. In the Calvinist Lockeanism embraced by Lincoln, slavery stood condemned for violating three principles, liberal principles that Jefferson himself once described as “self-evident”: Slavery denied human beings the right to liberty, free labor, and property; it denied them the right to consent to the form of rule over them; and it denied them the right to resist unjust power.
Rather than reinvent the Declaration of Independence, Lincoln thought about liberty and justice in ways a slaveholder could not bring himself to do. While Jefferson bequeathed to America a tradition of rights, the means of realizing, extending, and protecting those rights is the legacy of Lincoln. It is to him, as much as to Jefferson, that July 4 belongs.