Thus we are sowing the Seeds of Ignorance, Corruption, and Injustice, in the fairest Field of Liberty ever appeared upon Earth, even in the first attempts to cultivate it.
John Adams to Joseph Hawley, August 25, 1776
My fellow writer RMuse wrote yesterday about the U.S. Constitution and Republican nullification laws designed to undermine the Constitution. This is all very funny of course because, speaking of ignorance, corruption, and injustice, the Republicans claim to be the defenders of the Constitution; this while wishing to do away with every amendment save the Second and the Tenth- narrowing Republican goals to guns and secession.
And thinking about the Constitution got me thinking about the Declaration of Independence, that other all-important Founding document. We think now of the Declaration as the document that got the ball rolling; that laid out the ideological and philosophical framework of the country-to-be.
But at the time, to the committee assigned to write the Constitution – Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Robert Livingston, and Roger Sherman – the Declaration of Independence was just an administrative detail. The whole point of the document was to justify the withdrawal of the thirteen colonies from England’s not-so-affectionate embrace, a deed that was, by the time of Bunker Hill, already largely accomplished, for Boston was all that remained of British rule in North America. The Declaration was, in effect, putting the punctuation point on something – independence – that was already a done deal.
Thomas Jefferson himself got “stuck” with writing it because he was the least busy of the committee members and because Franklin cited not only his gout but an unwillingness to ever again write anything that would be subject to review by committee (a feeling Jefferson would soon come to share). And even then, Jefferson didn’t even want to do it, but wanted instead to return to Virginia where the “real important” work was taking place. Who could have seen at the time what would come of him being forced to remain in Philadelphia?
The committee, perhaps because they were so preoccupied with more important things, suggested only changing “We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable” to “self-evident” in the second paragraph’s opening lines. But this part of the document was not considered important and so this stylistic change was the only one made to the second, while the first paragraph was heavily revised. When the document was presented to Congress for consideration, the focus was not on the first two paragraphs but on the list of grievances. The core of the Constitution for Jefferson and others was not “all men being equal” but the list of charges against the king. Not the first two paragraphs, but especially the last, a complete reversal of how we read it today.
As Eric Slauter wrote, for readers, the Declaration was not that all men are created equal, but the statement that:
these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be, FREE AND INDEPENDENT STATES; that they are absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political Connection between them and the State of Great-Britain, is an ought to be totally dissolved; and that as FREE AND INDEPENDENT STATES they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which INDEPENDENT STATES may of right do.
As Slauter points out, this was a declaration of national independence “and not a declaration of individual rights.” But already by 1783, Quaker abolitionist David Cooper was pointing to Jefferson’s words in response to slavery. Thinking perhaps of Samuel Johnson, Cooper wrote, “When men talk of liberty, they mean their own liberty, and seldom suffer their thoughts on that point to stray to their neighbours.” In 1784, the state of Rhode Island abolished slavery with the Gradual Emancipation Act, using the very words of Jefferson, that “all men are created equal.”
Lincoln was right to point out that saying “The assertion that ‘all men are created equal’ was of no practical use in effecting our separation from Great Britain; and it was placed in the Declaration, not for that, but for future use.”
The Declaration was becoming something else, as Jefferson was beginning to realize before he died in 1826, and he became eager to attach his name to it, putting at the top of his list of accomplishments on his tombstone. Lincoln’s words above are his view in 1857. In 1859, Lincoln said,
All honor to Jefferson – to the man who, in the concrete pressure of a struggle for national independence by a single people, had the coolness, forecaste, and capacity to introduce into a merely revolutionary document, an abstract truth, and so to embalm it there, that today and in all coming days, it shall be a rebuke and a stumbling block to the very harbingers of reappearing tyranny and oppression.
Now the Declaration is a “merely” revolutionary document that happens to contain a greater truth and its value lies not in justification for rebellion but in the assertion that by nature all men equal.
Lincoln turned again to the Declaration in 1863, when, in the midst of the Civil War, he began his Gettysburg Address by saying that, “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”
We could no longer say that men just happen to be equal. That equality is now the very basis of the founding of our country. As Slauter concluded,
Though for most of the Declaration had not taken on its modern meaning as a charter of rights, a small group of black and white readers beginning in 1776 asserted that it should and, in doing so, made the Declaration their own and helped to make it modern.
Now America’s conservative voices would have it that the Declaration does not mean this at all, that “all men are created equal” does not mean all women too, let alone those who dare to be a color other than white, or a religion other than Christian. Liberalism vouches for the truth of Jefferson’s assertion today as it did yesterday; it was the radical liberal Thomas Paine, after all, who championed the rights of the landless and the old and the poor, and those are the same rights liberals champion today. They are the same rights conservatism battles endlessly against as it seeks to substitute the words “We the People” found in the Constitution with “We the Corporations.”
Political power in a democracy, as the founding Fathers realized, derives from the consent of the governed, which is why the Constitution begins with those words, “We the People.” It does not derive from the few rich, or from corporations, or from religious denominations, but from the people. And those people, all of them, says the Declaration of Independence, are equal.
As Lincoln said, Jefferson’s words should be “a rebuke and a stumbling block to the very harbingers of reappearing tyranny and oppression.” We see every day that they are. But how potent a rebuke to a party that has embraced all the dark excesses of the authoritarian mind?
Neither Jefferson nor Lincoln had to contend with the influence modern propaganda can bring to bear. For Jefferson’s words to continue as a rebuke, a sufficient rebuke, we must rally to them; we must insist they are relevant still. And they and they alone must be the ruler against which all laws are measured. The United States Constitution passes muster. The Republican platform? Their proposed laws at local, state, and federal level since 2008? Not so much.
It is touching the extent to which various Founding Fathers thought ahead, even (or especially) in the midst of crisis, to the “millions yet unborn,” sentiments expressed in their correspondence. That would be us. And that debt passes down to us. I hope that we equal to it, and in the midst of our own crises, can ourselves take time to think of the millions yet unborn who depend on our own decisions, and on our fortitude.
Image: John Trumbull’s Declaration of Independence from Wikipedia
 Eric Slauter, The Declaration of Independence and the new nation. In Frank Shuffleton (Ed.). The Cambridge Companion to Thomas Jefferson. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2009, 18.
 Slauter (2009), 12.
 Slauter (2009), 13.
 David Cooper, A Serious Address to the Rulers of America On the Inconsistency of their Conduct respecting Slavery. London: J. Phillips, 1873. Retrieved from http://gilderlehrman-announcements.org/teachers/scholars/HSP03.EAA3.Miller.pdf
 Slavery and the Slave Trade in Rhode Island. The John Carter Brown Library. Retrieved from http://www.brown.edu/Facilities/John_Carter_Brown_Library/jcbexhibit/Pages/exhibSlavery.html
 Abraham Lincoln, Speech at Springfield, June 26, 1857. MrLincolnandFreedom.org. Retrieved from http://www.mrlincolnandfreedom.org/inside.asp?ID=16&subjectID=2
 Letter of Abraham Lincoln to Henry L. Pierce of April 6, 1859. AbrahamLincolnOnline.org. Retrieved from http://www.abrahamlincolnonline.org/lincoln/speeches/pierce.htm
 Slauter (2009), 28.