We can embrace the underlying spirit of the Declaration of Independence but also learn from its shortcomings.
It is painful to write about the shortcomings of the Declaration of Independence. The historic document was officially approved by the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia on July 4, 1776 — a mere two days after the Lee Resolution formally declared the American colonies to be independent of the British Empire. Because the American colonists ultimately prevailed in their revolution against King George III, the document has been immortalized as one of the opening salvos in the ongoing fight for human freedom that continues to this very day. Without this seminal text, every social justice movement that has followed would never have come to pass.
Yet despite its overwhelmingly positive impact on history, the Declaration of Independence was also a product of its time — and bears some of the shortcomings of its era, including sexism, racism and prejudice against Native Americans. Here is a look at the events leading up to the creation of that document, as well as involved in its actual signing, which one must inspect for a more rounded look at this period in history:
1. It did not condemn slavery.
In the original list of grievances against King George III, future President Thomas Jefferson — who co-authored the document along with future President John Adams, as well as Benjamin Franklin, Robert Livingston and Richard Sherman — wrote that “he has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither.”
These words were cruelly ironic coming from Jefferson, who was an unrepentant racist and a slave owner — more on that in a moment. Nevertheless, even he acknowledged that slavery was an “abominable crime” and ultimately wished to see it purged from the new country. However, since southern support for the American Revolution was critical to its success, Jefferson ultimately scrapped that passage in order to keep the colonies united against their common enemy.
Yet the story is not quite as simple as Jefferson succumbing to political expedience; he had selfish and bigoted motives for supporting slavery that, in the end, outweighed his moral and logical reasons for opposing it. In 1782, only six years after drafting the Declaration of Independence, he offered these thoughts on the differences between whites and African-Americans:
Deep rooted prejudices entertained by the whites; ten thousand recollections, by the blacks, of the injuries they have sustained; new provocations; the real distinctions which nature has made … will divide us into parties, and produce convulsions which will probably never end but in the extermination of the one or the other race. To these objections, which are political, may be added others, which are physical and moral. The first difference which strikes us is that of colour. … They have less hair on the face and body. They secrete less by the kidnies, and more by the glands of the skin, which gives them a very strong and disagreeable odour. This greater degree of transpiration renders them more tolerant of heat, and less so of cold, than the whites. Comparing them by their faculties of memory, reason, and imagination, it appears to me that in memory they are equal to the whites; in reason much inferior, as I think one could scarcely be found capable of tracing and comprehending the investigations of Euclid: and that in imagination they are dull, tasteless, and anomalous.
These views are not surprising coming from a man who, over the course of his life, enslaved more than 600 people.
2. It did not protect the rights of women.
Less than four months before the Declaration of Independence was ratified, Abigail Adams — the wife of future President John Adams and thus a future first lady — urged her husband to “Remember the Ladies”when contemplating the legal premises that should guide the nascent republic. Her argument deserves to be reprinted in full:
I long to hear that you have declared an independancy and by the way in the new Code of Laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make I desire you would Remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favourable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands. Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could. If perticuliar care and attention is not paid to the Laidies we are determined to foment a Rebelion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice, or Representation.
That your Sex are Naturally Tyrannical is a Truth so thoroughly established as to admit of no dispute, but such of you as wish to be happy willingly give up the harsh title of Master for the more tender and endearing one of Friend. Why then, not put it out of the power of the vicious and the Lawless to use us with cruelty and indignity with impunity. Men of Sense in all Ages abhor those customs which treat us only as the vassals of your Sex. Regard us then as Beings placed by providence under your protection and in immitation of the Supreem Being make use of that power only for our happiness.
Adams’ response was, to say the least, tone deaf and unsympathetic. From patronizingly saying, “I cannot but laugh” at his wife’s suggestion — to sounding like a proto-MRA in arguing that, “We have only the Name of Masters, and rather than give up this, which would completely subject Us to the Despotism of the Peticoat” — Adams’ response would fit right in with the modern alt-right. (To be clear, Adams lived in 1776 and was a genuine hero with courage and principle, qualities which would never be found in a member of the alt-right.)
As to your extraordinary Code of Laws, I cannot but laugh. We have been told that our Struggle has loosened the bands of Government every where. That Children and Apprentices were disobedient — that schools and Colledges were grown turbulent — that Indians slighted their Guardians and Negroes grew insolent to their Masters. But your Letter was the first Intimation that another Tribe more numerous and powerfull than all the rest were grown discontented. — This is rather too coarse a Compliment but you are so saucy, I wont blot it out.
Depend upon it, We know better than to repeal our Masculine systems. Altho they are in full Force, you know they are little more than Theory. We dare not exert our Power in its full Latitude. We are obliged to go fair, and softly, and in Practice you know We are the subjects. We have only the Name of Masters, and rather than give up this, which would compleatly subject Us to the Despotism of the Peticoat, I hope General Washington, and all our brave Heroes would fight. I am sure every good Politician would plot, as long as he would against Despotism, Empire, Monarchy, Aristocracy, Oligarchy, or Ochlocracy. — A fine Story indeed. I begin to think the Ministry as deep as they are wicked. After stirring up Tories, Landjobbers, Trimmers, Bigots, Canadians, Indians, Negroes, Hanoverians, Hessians, Russians, Irish Roman Catholicks, Scotch Renegadoes, at last they have stimulated the to demand new Priviledges and threaten to rebell.
Needless to say, while some scholars have argued that the use of the term “men” instead of a gender neutral equivalent like “people” in phrases like “all men are created equal” was incidental, comments like those made by Adams suggest a more unfortunate explanation.
3. To the disadvantage of Native Americans, Jefferson replaced the phrase “property” with happiness when saying that human beings’ basic rights include “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
In theory, it is a good thing for someone to say that our inalienable rights amount to more than the acquisition of material goods, such as land and currency. And to be fair, Jefferson was almost certainly inspired by the philosopher John Locke, who wrote the following in 1690:
The necessity of pursuing happiness [is] the foundation of liberty. As therefore the highest perfection of intellectual nature lies in a careful and constant pursuit of true and solid happiness; so the care of ourselves, that we mistake not imaginary for real happiness, is the necessary foundation of our liberty. The stronger ties we have to an unalterable pursuit of happiness in general, which is our greatest good, and which, as such, our desires always follow, the more are we free from any necessary determination of our will to any particular action, and from a necessary compliance with our desire, set upon any particular, and then appearing preferable good, till we have duly examined whether it has a tendency to, or be inconsistent with, our real happiness: and therefore, till we are as much informed upon this inquiry as the weight of the matter, and the nature of the case demands, we are, by the necessity of preferring and pursuing true happiness as our greatest good, obliged to suspend the satisfaction of our desires in particular cases.
That said, there is another interpretation of why “happiness” was replaced with “property” — one that has less to do with Enlightenment philosophy and more with ensuring that specific marginalized groups could not assert their rights. As historian Peter Garnsey wrote in his book Thinking about Property: From Antiquity to the Age of Revolution, Jefferson’s excision of the word “property” might have been partially driven by a desire to avoid legitimizing the institution of slavery — which would have certainly been a good reason — but he might have also been motivated by a less seemly sentiment.
But there were also the ‘Indians’ (Native Americans). American leaders could not stop settlers from taking over Indian land, nor did they want to. Jefferson writing in 1801 as President to the Governor of Virginia spoke of his dream that white farmers would ‘cover the whole northern if not the southern continent, with a people speaking the same language, governed in similar forms, and by similar laws; nor can we contemplate with satisfaction either blot or mixture on that surface.’ Jefferson himself together with associates had been acquiring Indian from the 1760s. As for Indians who did not cede their land peacefully, they could be forced to do so in a ‘just war.’ Warfare was in progress on the frontiers of Virginia just when Jefferson was preparing his draft for the Declaration of Independence — fomented, he charged, by the British. At the same time Jefferson and many other leading politicians did not claim that the Indians, though primitive peoples, had no natural rights, including the ‘right of soil.’ However, if there was a natural right to property, virtually all property held by descendants of European settlers would have been under suspicion. Jefferson was as inconsistent over the Indians as he was over slavery.
Considering that one of the Declaration’s complaints against King George III was that he “has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions,” this anti-Native American theory is depressingly plausible.
Is any of this intended to suggest that we should not take pride in the Declaration of Independence? Not even remotely: It was — and continues to be — one of the most eloquent and morally moving political documents ever penned. That said, we must also remember that our Founding Fathers were not the living gods that many believe them to be. They were fallible human beings, and some of their flaws had terrible consequences for people who were not fortunate enough to be born into privileged groups. When we celebrate the Declaration of Independence, we should embrace its underlying spirit — as well as the courage of the men who were willing to risk “our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor” — and simultaneously learn from its shortcomings. This alone can make the spirit of 1776 relevant to the conditions of 2019 — or any other year, for that matter.