American Scripture: The Making of the Declaration of Independence
You might call this the “strange history of all men are created equal.” I want to talk about what happened to that phrase. You will understand this is part of my teacher’s compulsion to have something in your heads as you leave the room. But it also comes from, I think, a very realistic recognition that the subject of my book is far more important than the book itself. What I became amazed with was how much new there was to be said about this very old historical topic. Like what?
Well, first of all, the state and local declarations of independence that I found. I think, from a scholar’s point of view, those are the most important contribution of the book. These were, of course, resolutions passed by towns and counties often to instruct their delegates to provincial legislatures that they should support independence or instructions which were adopted by provincial, or, as we’d say, state legislatures telling their delegates to the Continental Congress to support independence. And often they gave the reasons as well.
But these were documents that had been, for all practical purposes, lost over the past century and a half. I rediscovered them. They were known to exist at an earlier time, and I think the fact that they were lost is one measure of how much we have been transfixed with THE Declaration of Independence. How much other parts of the subject have, in a sense, fallen away. So, my task became, in part, one of recovery of what had been lost.
These documents here might cover this very well. They were written between roughly April and July 1776, and they did put the Declaration of Independence in a comparative context. I could see how the nature of the way people explained their position changed over that period of time. In some ways, the state and local declarations were preferable, I concluded, to Jefferson’s, or, I should say more exactly, the Congress’s Declaration of Independence. And in others they were clearly lacking. They were better, I thought, at explaining why Americans became reconciled to independence.
And they did this by citing a handful of grievances. And they made a lot of sense. I mean, they said, “Look, this king’s been making war on us for a year. He’s turned slaves, he’s Indians against us, he’s turned his navy against our ships, as if they were those of an open enemy, and now he’s hiring German soldiers, you know, to finish us off. Look, we’re going to get clobbered. We’re going to be destroyed unless we do something. And the only thing we can do is to try to get help somewhere. And nobody’s going to help us unless we declare independence.” Clearly, France wasn’t going to come help the colonists patch their troubles with the king of England and put the British Empire back together. They would be much more interested in severing it. So, independence was their ticket to help from European nations, which they knew would not be on principle but would be on principles of self-interest. That made sense.
What they weren’t was inspiring. They talked about . . . as I said, they were like men with their backs to the wall. You can have sympathy for them, but you don’t necessarily find them inspiring. But after a while I discovered in these documents had another use. They gave me a handle for understanding or measuring, if you will, the influence of Paine’s Common Sense. Now, many of you, I guess, have read a great deal on the Revolution. And you’ll be aware that Common Sense is a kind of a ... a magic bullet for explaining how the colonists adopt . . . came to accept independence. You know, they were for reconciliation in late 1775. And then all of a sudden, they start saying, “Hey! independence isn’t such a bad idea.” And between those two poles, boom! Thomas Paine publishes Common Sense. So, it must be the reason. And lacking another reason, I think that’s, you know, that’s what we generally have.
But when you have these state and local declarations, you could say, “Well, were they influenced by Paine?” And in some ways, clearly, they were. I suspect the whole public debate over independence was . . . was opened by Paine’s Common Sense, which appealed to large numbers of people because of its style, because of ... what do you call it ... the rambunctious way he argued for it. No scholarly treatise, that. But when you looked at these local declarations, which are, as I say, as close to the voice of the people you’re likely ever to get for all the problems that they have in that . . . serving that function, they sometimes use Paine’s language. But they never adopt his argument.
His argument was that we had to break from independence because . . . from Britain because the system of the British constitution was hopelessly flawed; it had hereditary rule; it had kings; you could never have freedom so long as you had hereditary rule. None of these say that. They go back to talking about, as I said earlier, events. It’s events that explain it. It’s a different argument for the same conclusion. And I ended up thinking Paine’s influence was certainly very important. But it wasn’t self-sufficient, that, in fact, there was a much broader process.
What I came to see were large numbers of Americans following events, thinking through their implications, coming to a conclusion quite independently of what . . . what were being fed to them by propagandizers. Well, so much for that topic.
Then I was going to write another chapter on the writing of the Declaration of Independence. And I knew partly what I wanted to do there. A problem remained in describing how that committee text had been created. And the common wisdom was that Jefferson wrote it. Period. And there was a very good source for that: Thomas Jefferson. In 1923 (sic), and again in 1925 (sic), he provided a description of how the Declaration was written, and he said he had truth. Others like John Adams or Thomas McKeen(?) had given accounts that were hopelessly confused. And what would you expect? I mean, this was forty, almost fifty years after the fact. Memory is fallible, he said. True. I am over 80. But I’m not depending on memory, he said. I have in my possession some documents of the time, notes on the proceedings of Congress I took in my seat and also what we know as the original rough draft of the Declaration of Independence. You might know this document. It is in the possession of the Library of Congress, which occasionally puts it on display in its Treasures exhibit. It shows the document. The base text is the document as Jefferson first submitted it to the drafting committee. And then it has all kinds of editorial changes, those made in the committee and those subsequently made by the Continental Congress. He was economical in some ways, Mr. Jefferson, conceivably not in others. But he certainly was economical in terms of paper. So, he used all of these on the same piece of paper. And of course, it saved him from having to copy it over yet again. And this was in his possession. And he wrote to Madison. He said, “You have seen the changes marked in Adams’s and Franklin’s handwritings. And this is how it was done. The committee met, appointed me as draftsman. I wrote the document. Then I first showed it to John Adams and to Benjamin Franklin because I respected their opinion. And then, after making a few verbal changes, they gave it back to me. I showed it to the committee. The committee says perfect; there’s not another thing we want to do. And without any further alterations, they sent it on to the Congress.”
Well, John Adams, you know, gave a slightly different version of it. It was also very late in life. The survivors told the story, 1822. He said the committee met. It met several times, in fact, and that it discussed what the Declaration should consist of. And indeed divided it into articles and said what the various articles should say and then put this on paper as in minutes or instructions for its draftsman or draftsmen, I should say, because he claimed he, too, was on the drafting committee. It was this account that sent Thomas Jefferson, I won’t say into orbit, but inspired him to write these letters, correcting the Adams view. For I think, you know, indeed, Adams was wrong about two people on the committee because he gave a very different version in the late 1770s. But this business about a drafting committee meeting made sense to me. I could imagine a committee charged with writing a declaration that didn’t talk a little bit about the document before having somebody write it.
And then, you know, I discovered other advantages that we have, and that I had over Thomas Jefferson, even with his quite estimable collection of documents. We have more documents. We have all the documents collected by these truly wonderful, modern, historical editing projects. You know, the Papers of John Adams; the Papers of Thomas Jefferson. These projects have collected, have scraped one library after another, have found a more comprehensive set of documents on just about any subject than even the most industrious scholar could ever have located. And these, and you can do them sitting in a library. Well, flipping through the papers of Benjamin Franklin, which had been out of the library, so, I finally got it and I looked at it, and there weren’t very many. But boy! what they had was dynamite.
What they had was this one letter that Jefferson had written to Franklin in May 1776 . . . June 1776 that no one seemed to have paid much attention to. Those who’ve read the book will remember it. And in it, he says, “Dear Dr. Franklin, this . . . the enclosed text has just been, you know, approved by the committee, which asked me to change a sentiment or two. And I’m hoping you can look at it and get it back to me in the morning, so I can give it to the committee again.” Much more interventionist committee than he had remembered . . . but he remembered . . . would remember, I should say, in 1823 or 1825. And in some ways, it confirmed the Adams view that the committee had met several times. That was very important in parsing out how this document was written. But it also was interesting, I think, in explaining how Jefferson went wrong in 1823. I don’t think he was lying. Gary Wills said I said he lied when he said he was the author of the Declaration. What a misstatement of my position. This is not on a character issue. It’s a human issue. I mean, he just didn’t remember. What he . . . I think . . . what he did is he took the original rough draft, which was, again, in his possession. And he noticed that except for a few changes that were in somebody else’s handwriting . . . and then he wrote in the margin whose handwritings those . . . those were in . . . all the changes were in his handwriting. So, I think he assumed he did them on his own initiative. It would be a logical conclusion for him to have drawn. He simply forgot that some of those were made on the instructions of other committee members. And that I didn’t figure out until after the book had gone to press.
Well, the point of both of these discoveries end up being rather similar. Both independence itself and the Declaration were not contributions of single men. There was a much more broad-based political effort that produced them. They were the work, if you will, of the American people and their elected leaders working through the political process. And that’s more or less the point that I also want to make, as you’ll see with my little disquisition on the history of all men are created equal.
And here I think of a reviewer in the Quincy, Massachusetts Patriot Ledger: “What she doesn’t tell us,” he said, “is why we shiver when we read those words, all men are created equal.” Those words are, I think, for us, the critically important words in the Declaration of Independence along with the next assertion about all men having unalienable rights, including, as we all know, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. They may be the only parts of the Declaration that most people remember today. I think they explain why the documents are arranged as they are in the shrine at the National Archives, which you may have visited or you may know from my description in their introduction of the book. They are the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, are like on the face of an altar. Above them, where the tabernacle would be in a Catholic church, is the Declaration of Independence. It is superior, I think, more . . . more revered, if anything. It makes Americans shiver, maybe, more than the other two. It is superior to the others, in some very curious way. And people are simply loath to think that it might not always have been there.
Was the Declaration of Independence important in 1776? Of course. It’s impossible to understand why the Continental Congress would have spent two days editing it in the midst of one of the most, most trying military crises of the war unless they understood that it was important. But why was it important? Two reasons. First of all, to justify the decision to break from Britain. Or to put it another way . . . To end the reign of a living king, at least over North America—the thirteen colonies that were, at any rate, declaring their independence. In this instance, the colonists were acting in keeping with the long English tradition . . . as I don’t explain in the book. That is, Englishmen never ended the reign of a living king, which they did repeatedly, without issuing some explanation. And being Englishmen . . . there were two possible explanations acceptable. One, the king was totally inept. Rex inutilis. Or he was evil in the sense of interfering with the people’s rights and freedoms. What the Declaration of Independence says, “Hey! we have the evil kind.”
Second, they had to tell the American people what Congress had already decided two days earlier; and that is, to break with Britain. Certainly, this was meant to be inspiring. And it was inspiring. People we know took the document . . . indeed, they were expected to do this. A New York journal published the whole declaration on one page because, they said, that way, people could cut it out and pin it up in their homes. It’s the first sort of example of sort of poster art in American history of which I’m aware. And I found . . . one described in a document, looked as if it had been taped up and ... not taped ... ha ha ... nailed up and then pulled down. Little anachronism there. Well, what was inspiring about it? What they did cite? Well, it was always the last paragraph which, incidentally, Congress had thoroughly rewritten, substituting its text for most of Jefferson’s. And the words that were cited most often were those of Congress’s resolution written by Richard Henry Lee, that these United Colonies are and of right ought to be free and independent states.
We take that for granted. In 1776, it was news. Think of what it meant. It changed the whole character of the war. These were people who for a year had been making war against a king with whom they were trying to effect a reconciliation, to whom they were publicly professing loyalty. Now, heart and hand, as one person said, could move together. They had a cause to fight for, for the creation of a new nation, for a clean break. “We live,” Paine had said, “at the birthday of a new world.” That must have been very exciting. And it was independence. And of course the republic they were going to found that was so exciting. By the middle of the 19th Century, it wasn’t exciting anymore. It had already been done a long time ago.
What was almost unnoticed—and this is what’s so mystifying to people today—was the second paragraph, the one we remember that begins, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights.” Why did it go unnoticed? Not because people disagreed. Because everybody agreed. Because those same sentiments were stated in many different places. In the footnotes, indeed, I quote a Massachusetts election sermon of May 29, 1776, that says essentially the same thing that the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence said and, of course, it preceded it. It’s one of many places where they could have encountered those ideas. I think Jefferson’s inclusion of these philosophic precepts was extraordinarily important if only because it gave the document what he wanted to give it, the tone called for by the occasion. But ... and ... for most people looked at ... and I mean, this was ... what do we call it? Boiler plate. The real point came later in the final paragraph. Indeed, if you were looking for a preferred statement of those ideas, it wasn’t the Declaration of Independence at all.
It was George . . . it was George Mason’s words which were in a draft of the Virginia Declaration of Rights which appeared in the Pennsylvania Gazette on June 12, 1776, and somehow managed to inspire large numbers of Americans, including Jefferson and possibly other members of the drafting committee. It’s clear that Jefferson worked from Mason’s words in drafting the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence. Perhaps I should read the Mason words. They are similar. They have this vaguely familiar sense that, “all mean are born equally free and independent and have certain inherent, natural rights, which they cannot by any compact deprive or divert their posterity, among which are the enjoyment of life and liberty with a means of acquiring and possessing property and pursuing and attaining happiness.” More cumbersome to our ears, because we’re used to the more economical Jeffersonian statement.
What Jefferson did was to pare these down, to cut away language, to say it more succinctly, more economically because it served a different function, the Declaration of Independence, than in the Virginia Declaration of Rights. He used as I explain a rhetorical strategy by which you pile phrase on phrase and the meaning of the whole sequence comes out only at the end, in the end of his paragraph, at the end of his sentence, I should say—that’s a very long sentence. It’s an assertion of the right of the people to alter or to abolish a government and to replace it with another in a form which in their view will better serve their happiness and safety. It’s an assertion of the right of revolution.
I had it backwards. I thought Jefferson had influenced Mason. And then all of a sudden, I said, “Wait a minute. The chronology of this is wrong.” And then I started to look at some of the subsequent . . . the successive drafts that Becker teased out to see how Jefferson had changed the text. Or how the text changed from one editorial generation to another. And I began to see how he’d worked from Mason and changed it. Mason said, for example, “all men are born equally free and independent.” Jefferson wrote, “all men are created,” he changed the verb, “equal and independent,” and then he crossed out “and independent.” And I started to see how he had worked with this text. The Mason text, in short, inspired Jefferson. That’s really the point I’m making.
But it inspired others in ways that were probably more substantively important. Those words were read into, were copied with slight alterations into one state bill of rights after another, bill or declaration of rights, as they called them in the 18th century, and those documents were legally binding as the Declaration of Independence was not.
Okay, you might ask, if these sentiments were so broadly shared, why weren’t they put into the federal bill of rights or the Constitution, for that matter? Not because no one suggested they should be. The closing days of the convention of 1787, George Mason, who was a delegate, stood up and said, “You know, we should really add a bill of rights to this constitution, and it won’t take us long, because we have the state declarations of rights to use as a model.” Not one delegation approved of his suggestion. It’s interesting to speculate why not. Maybe it was just the end of a long summer. They wanted to pack up and go home, and they suspected it would take longer than Mason thought. Maybe, like James Madison, they thought it was silly. You really didn’t need a bill of rights, that parchment barriers had been proven ineffective. Legislatures just walked right over them. The only way you could protect liberties was by building structural restraints on power into a government such as those in the body of the Constitution.
Whatever the reason, they made a big political mistake. The opponents of ratification argued against it most vociferously because it lacked of a bill of rights. And they made their case so powerfully that in the first federal congress no one other than James Madison felt compelled to move a bill of rights and to think it should then be added to the Constitution. Madison’s proposal’s not what we got. He wanted to add a prefix, a preamble to the Constitution that had some changes in the body of the document. But his prefix, which again, you can see in the book, is interesting because it is what the 18th-century would call a curiously emasculated version of Mason’s words. We call it washed-out. He started out saying the government’s based on the people, creation of the people. Sure. Right. Fine. Okay. But suddenly, life, liberty and property became benefits of government, not inherent rights. And the only inherent right was the right of the people to alter their government, not even to abolish it. This was a peculiar step backward in terms of great principles of the Revolution. And even then it was too much for Congress. They threw it out, and, of course, what we got were a few amendments. Congress proposed 10 ... 12 ... 10 were approved ... tacked on to the end of the Constitution as amendments, looking like the afterthought they were.
But this is very important, because those words weren’t in either the federal bill of rights or the Constitution. Anyone who thought the notion or statement of men’s basic equality or their possession of rights had to go back to the Declaration of Independence. It was the only important founding document they had. And therefore, I think, it’s no surprise that in the 1790s, and again, in the 1820s, when the Declaration was revived, when attention turned to it, where suddenly it was remembered, and it had been mostly forgotten for 15 or 20 years after it served its function of announcing independence, that when it was once again rediscovered, attention was no longer on the final paragraph but the second paragraph. And that the emphasis there was not on the assertion of the right of revolution—although that remained important in people’s minds—it was in the opening lines, that “all men are created equal,” that people had inherent rights. By the 1820s it had become a sacred document—part of American political scripture.
But that it had become so important didn’t mean it was no less controversial. Indeed, it was in the center of controversies. Anyone who wanted the moral high ground would try to claim if they could possibly do it the authority of the Declaration of Independence. And in the midst of controversy, particularly the controversy over slavery, I believe, the meaning of those phrases changed in a way that will end up seeming very familiar to us. How did that happen? Let me just summarize this. The opponents of slavery found it very easy to claim on their side the assertion that all men are created equal. What did it mean? It meant that all persons were born free of subjection to another. That, in effect, all authority, as the Declaration went on to say, came from consent.
But what did that have to do with slavery? Slaves were born into their status of subjection. Consent had nothing to do with it. So, people like Garrison could say every 4th of July you celebrate and still you endure a system of slavery. You hypocrites. Well, by the 1830s, you know, the slaveholders weren’t just sitting there, taking it. Indeed, earlier on, they felt compelled to answer this. I think Garrison actually read the meaning of that phrase correctly in its 18th century sense. Well, those defenders of slavery took another hard look at it, and they said, “Wait a minute. Wait a minute. This might be in the Declaration of Independence. But this is nonsense. Men are not born equal or independent. How equal and independent is a baby? We are born subject to others. That’s men’s natural state. Oh, this statement in the Declaration—it’s unfortunate it’s here. It didn’t have to be there,” John C. Calhoun said. “But this is a falsehood.” And, indeed, one ... one senator in 1853 said, “It’s a self-evident lie.”
That kind of language is very offensive to people who had come to regard the Declaration with a kind of religious fervor. Now, who am I speaking of? I’m speaking of people who were gathering in the Republican Party of the 1850s. Abraham Lincoln is to us the most prominent. But he certainly wasn’t the only one. His party rallied around, as they understood it, the principles of the Declaration of Independence, which the Republicans built into their platform in 1856 and again in 1860.
How did they answer the defenders of slavery? What does it mean that all men are created equal? Benjamin Way(?) ... Benjamin Franklin Wade in the Senate of the United States ... said this is ... surely it doesn’t mean all men are alike, that they’re equal in strength or intelligence or any of that. What it means is what it says. It says all men are equal in point of right. So, equality and equal rights were read together, were made ... equal rights became the meaning of a primitive equality. Abraham Lincoln said the same thing. He said what did the signers mean. Did they mean to say people weren’t equal in ways that’s obviously untrue? No. Of course they didn’t. They said all men are equal in that they have inherent rights. Aligning the first and the second phrase. Which, in Jefferson’s writing, incidentally, were quite separate. But that doesn’t make any difference. I mean, the new meaning became established. Did not mean, Lincoln said, that all men could exercise those rights. But they were put into the Declaration, he said, by the signers so that they were implanted there as a program for the future, that they could be realized as soon as circumstances allowed. They meant to set up a standard maxim for free men which should be familiar to all and revered by all, constantly looked to and 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.
He’s not the only one that read the document in that way. But his statement is best known and most often quoted. And it’s an extraordinarily radical statement. If you think about it, it moved Lincoln far beyond Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson to the end of his life did not believe that whites and blacks could live together in this country in peace, much less on a basis of equality. The only way he could see the achievement of equal rights was by what he inelegantly called deportation of freedmen, what others called colonization. And every emancipation proposal in Virginia involved not really just freeing slaves but getting them out of Virginia.
What was more radical but it even pushed Lincoln, I think, toward more extreme positions. In 1859, he said the Declaration of Independence was incompatible with slavery, but that it did not mandate civil and social equality. By the end of his life, he was asking the government of the newly reconstructed of Louisiana if they couldn’t extend some civil rights to perhaps the most capable of the freedmen. And of course, his party went even further after his death, enacting not only the 13th Amendment, which brought to an end slavery and involuntary servitude but the 14th Amendment and the 15th. And they had a powerful impact. They were meant originally, or so I am told by Abby Soiefer(?) who’s the Dean of the Boston College Law School who studied the Congressional debates. Tthey were meant in part in to read the principles of the Declaration of Independence into the Constitution finally, and it meant that in good part, our tradition of equal rights has been delegated to the courts. It took a while for them to act. But in our century, of course, that’s the story.
But there’s a lingering question. Why did these Republicans care so much? It’s hard to answer for everybody. But I think for Lincoln we can. Lincoln gave us an answer. He said that if you said, as Stephen Douglas and other defenders of slavery said, that all men are created equal, referred only to white people, or worse yet, to Americans and Englishmen of 1776, that the American rights were equal to those of the Englishmen, if that’s all it meant, well, what about all the immigrants who came later? What about the Scandinavians? What about the Irish? What about the Germans? To these people who were, of course, were represented among Lincoln’s neighbors and constituents, the statement “all men are created equal,” he said, had become a moral sentiment. It was an idea that bound them, bone of the bone, flesh of the flesh, with the founders of the nation. They were by no means second-rate citizens. They were equal. I think Lincoln came to understand that if you drew any line in people’s rights, everybody’s rights were in danger. It was like his famous statement on slavery. What justifies slavery? Color? Ah! look out. If you say it’s color, the first person with lighter skin than you can enslave you. “Ah,” you say, “I don’t mean color. I mean intelligence.” Look out. The first person you encounter who’s more intelligent than you can enslave you. You couldn’t draw any line that was tolerable. It had to be all men in the most literal sense.
And I think that’s why it becomes, it remains so important an idea for us today. This is important to us. It’s the basis of our rights. But the Declaration that we revere is obviously that of Lincoln and the Republican Party. It isn’t that of Thomas Jefferson. Nonetheless, even Lincoln gave Jefferson credit for it. He said: All honor to Jefferson for putting in a nearly revolutionary document these principles and embalming there that they be a kind of a harbinger to all future ages, et cetera, et cetera. That means that my outraged critics are kind of like Lincoln. They, too, attribute this whole tradition to some prescient super-human founding fathers who saw all the future as God does. The truth is very different.
The story I have told you is that of a document whose original purpose was different than the purpose it came to serve, a document that was saved from the trash barrel of history by people who thought its principles were important, a document that was reinterpreted, whose whole function changed by the power of the American people and their elected representatives. That is the point of my book.
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