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For Liberty and Equality

The Life and Times of the Declaration of Independence

December 2012

For Liberty and Equality:
The Life and Times of
the Declaration of Independence
by Alexander Tsesis
Oxford University Press, 397 pages, $29.95, hardcover

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According to law professor Alexander Tsesis, the history of the Declaration of Independence has been ironic indeed. What else could one expect when a document proclaims that "all Men are created equal" yet was penned by a man, Thomas Jefferson, who owned more than a hundred slaves?

In For Liberty and Equality Tsesis, who teaches at Loyola University Chicago School of Law, explores the declaration's role in American history through the civil rights era. The dominant subject is, quite naturally, slavery, its abolition, and its aftermath. The dominant charge is hypocrisy. Tsesis has assembled some harsh historical criticism. For example, Quaker leader David Cooper wrote in 1783 that "unless we can [show] that the African race are not men, words can hardly express the amazement which naturally arises on reflecting, that the very people who make these pompous declarations are slaveholders." Decades later, abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison wrote: "I am sick of our unmeaning declamations in praise of liberty and equality, of our hypocritical cant about the inalienable rights of many."

Yet others saw no inconsistency - so long as slaves were excluded from the definition of men. As presidential candidate Stephen Douglas put it in 1860: "The signers of the Declaration of Independence referred to white man, and to him alone, when they declared that all men were created equal." According to Tsesis, in 1848 Senator John Calhoun "mocked the Declaration of Independence's claim of equality of the 'human races' as being an error inherited from the writings of British philosophers John Locke and Algernon Sidney." A Virginia newspaper insisted in 1864 that "[m]en are not born to equal rights" and called the declaration "exuberantly false."

Yet the document proclaims more than that men "are endowed by their Creator" with the "inalienable Rights" of "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." It also asserts that "whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government." Where some have read in the document a fundamental incompatibility with slavery, others have found opposition to governmental interference with property rights. Tsesis explains how Southern secessionists read the declaration as being "primarily concerned with the right to revolution rather than individual rights." The former Confederate president, Jefferson Davis, "continued to insist that the rebellion was a justified means of vindicating states' independence as created by the Declaration of Independence." Well after the Civil War, "a counternarrative ... contended that the Declaration's statements against overbearing government prohibited federal intrusion into state civil and political matters."

The debate continues through Reconstruction, into the Jim Crow era, and up to the New Deal, when "[c]onservatives seized on the document's statements about tyrannical governance and natural rights to protest federal regulations that burdened property." And so forth into the civil rights era, when James L. Farmer Jr., national director of the Congress of Racial Equality, hailed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 "because it gave 'hope to Negroes that the American people and Government mean to redeem the promise of the Declaration of Independence and the Emancipation Proclamation.' " Yet just a few years later, H. Rap Brown "advised black youths to keep a copy of the Declaration in their pocket while they fought street battles, in order to give their destructive efforts a sense of purpose."

Varying uses of the declaration persist to this day. In July, presidential candidate Mitt Romney told a Pennsylvania audience: "Let's stop and think about the system of government and what it tells us in its founding document, the Declaration of Independence. It does not say that the government gave us our rights. It said that God gave us our rights." If Romney's message is that government is not the solution, others might respond that he should read further, to the part of the declaration that states "to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men." As Tsesis put it in his closing message: "Protection of those rights is the essential purpose of government."

The reader is left with the feeling that, whether the Declaration is a proclamation of human rights or against tyranny, it has historically promised more than it has delivered. "Maybe," says a professor quoted near the end of the book, "we ought to revoke the Declaration of Independence. Then we wouldn't have so much trouble living up to it."

Jon B. Eisenberg, an appellate lawyer in Oakland, is principal author of California Practice Guide: Civil Appeals and Writs (The Rutter Group, 2012).

Reader Comments

Mark Curran - August 22, 2013
You are all over the map on this one, why not make a simple statement and have a little guts. It's time we move past the silly dismissal of Thomas Jefferson because he owned slaves. He can not write true things? George Mason, the largest slave owner in Virginia, wrote, essentially, that Southern Gentleman slave owners were sociopaths dressed up for church, though he used vernacular of that era. Mason knew these "Gentleman" well, not just from their self serving epistles, but from their actions at slave auctions, their comments coming out of the slave barns, etc. In other words, he knew stuff you don't. SO when Mason describes "Southern Gentlemen" as basically socipaths as vile as any despots, and "tyrants" maybe he knew something. A fat person may know it's unwise to eat six creampuffs a day --if a skinny person says it, is that more or less true? For some reason, every pointless diatribe on TJ, it seems, points out he owned slaves, as if we didn't know, and as if the point of telling us proved something. The epic battle about Declaration of Independence was, of course, Lincoln's, but you failed to detail that. That's a bit like discussing history of baseball without mentioning Abner D. Probably no other case was more widely discussed that Dred Scott, which idiotically is explained to fools today as being about "citizenship", which is like discussing rape without mentioning any contact between the victim and rapist. Lincoln, said correctly, that Dred Scott was about making property of a certain racial group, and "nothing but property". Jefferson Davis, ironically, fully agreed, claiming that because of Dred Scott, African slaves were "not part of the people". This "logic" that slaves were not human, essentially, for purposes of the Constitution is exactly what Davis and Southern leaders wanted, and got. Lincoln's House Divided speech was about this very thing, as were almost ever sentence in the Lincoln Douglas debates. Over, and over, and over, did I mention over?-- LIncoln castigated Dred Scott decision for it's unilateral and vile order that blacks were essentially non-human. Or the Orwellian way to say that, "not part of the people". A big help to understand issues like this, is quit using the vile rhetorical poisons used by those who seek to oppress. Lincoln was right, Dred Scott was about whether or not blacks were human. Say it the way Davis did, if you must, idiotically that's the way it's taught, even in lawschool, as "citizenship" issue. Frame things as the oppressor does, and you end up joining that camp. Notice when Davis was discussing Dred Scott, much like the "history teachers" today, they don't mention that Kansas voted a stunning 98% -2% against slavery. Tiny factoid Davis would run from, as would all Confederate speeches, books and and newspapers. Let's use direct, truthful, blunt language. We might even more forward because of it.

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