July 4, 2014


Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness: How did these words become the most important in the Declaration of Independence? The answer starts with a small band of motivated Americans. (Eric Slauter,
July 3, 2011, Boston Globe)

To members of the small antislavery movement of the time, the language of the Declaration must have arrived as a blessing - a national document, signed by some of America's leading citizens, that included a claim that "all Men are created equal." Almost immediately, it seems, antislavery activists such as Lemuel Haynes of Massachusetts incorporated those words into their arguments against slavery. Haynes had a black father and a white mother and called himself a "Mollato." He had experienced life as an indentured servant and as a soldier, but never as a slave, and he embraced the key sentence as an epigraph for a manuscript he had been working on with the characteristically lengthy (and loosely spelled) 18th-century title of "Liberty Further Extended; or Free thoughts on the illegality of Slave-keeping; Wherein those arguments that Are useed in its vindication Are plainly Confuted. Together with an humble Address to such as are Concearned in the practise."

There, in unedited prose on the title page, he cited the words of Congress: "We hold these truths to Be self-Evident, that all men are created Equal, that they are Endowed By their Creator with Ceartain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of happyness."

Haynes's essay was not published in his lifetime, but he was part of a bigger social and political movement, and other similar uses of the phrase did see print. In a sermon given in 1778, a white antislavery minister from Hanover, N.J., asked his listeners and later his readers "if 'tis self-evident, i.e. so clear that it needs not proof, how unjust, how inhuman, for Britons, or Americans, not only to attempt, but actually to violate this right?" That same year, a Quaker from Pennsylvania named Anthony Benezet suggested that a nation that made the public declarations of equality and rights present in the Declaration while simultaneously supporting slavery risked divine punishment during wartime. In 1783, David Cooper of New Jersey published an address directed to "the Rulers of America" in the Continental Congress on the inconsistency of slavery in a land of liberty, using the second paragraph of the Declaration to hold them to account. Could Congress, he asked, have truly meant only "the rights of whitemen" and not of "all men"?

Invoking the language of the Declaration became a powerful part of abolitionist rhetoric. Indeed, a search for the phrase "all Men are created equal" in digitized newspapers and nonperiodical publications reveals that a majority of the citations in the 15 years after 1776 were by opponents of the slave trade. Formal abolitionist societies in Pennsylvania in 1788, in Maryland in 1791, and New Jersey in 1793 all worked the sentence into the constitutions of their organizations. Abolitionist sympathizers in Congress invoked the sentence on the floor of the new House of Representatives in 1790, even though the Constitution itself denied Congress the power to prohibit the migration and importation of slaves before 1808.

And long before abolitionism became a potent political force in America, the Declaration's language of rights became a linchpin of the move away from slavery. In writing it, Jefferson and Congress built on intellectual foundations from John Locke and other and had followed the sweeping language of Virginia's Declaration of Rights, a draft of which circulated in June of 1776 and enumerated the natural rights of life and liberty as well as the right to pursue happiness. Vermont's Declaration of Rights of 1777 opened with similar language, but followed these abstractions with a specific prohibition on slavery. In Massachusetts, the constitution adopted in 1780 began with a Declaration of Rights, which held that "All men are born free and equal and have certain natural, essential, and unalienable rights," including life, liberty, "safety and happiness." In 1783, citing that article, the Massachusetts Supreme Court declared slavery unconstitutional, forestalling the necessarily difficult political wrangling and costs that might have ensued with a direct legislative solution for emancipation. As the Revolutionary War ended in 1783, legislators in Rhode Island prefaced an Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery with a direct citation of the claims of rights and equality from the Declaration's second paragraph.

By 1792, when almanac maker Benjamin Banneker, an African-American, quoted the "true and invaluable doctrine . . . 'that all men are created equal' " back to Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson in an exchange of letters reprinted in papers across the new nation, abolitionists had been working for a decade and a half to make Americans identify the Declaration of Independence with the cause of enslaved peoples.

The Declaration itself began to take on its iconic status in the early 19th century, as the nation emerged from a second war with Britain and as revolutions in Latin America led to the creation of new declarations of independence. Early in the 1820s, Congress authorized the production of a facsimile of the engrossed parchment copy, and by the time of the Declaration's jubilee in 1826 it was not just abolitionists who were invoking the self-evident truths of the second paragraph as a founding creed of the nation.

Enhanced by Zemanta

[originally posted: 7/03/11]

Posted by at July 4, 2014 12:54 AM

blog comments powered by Disqus