The Declaration of Independence -- The Original Abolitionist Document


Alexander Tsesis is associate professor of law at the Loyola University, School of Law -- Chicago. He is the author of "For Liberty and Equality: The Life and Times of the Declaration of Independence" (Oxford University Press 2012).

Historians have not given the Declaration of Independence the amount of attention it deserves relative to its influence on American culture. It is a wonder that so few books and articles have been written about a topic that has made such a profound impression on the lives of so many ordinary Americans. A common mistake made by the select authors who have written about the subject is to claim that the Declaration had little effect on American society and politics until the War of 1812 with Great Britain. This error stems from a 1962 article by Philip Detweiler, whose conclusions have often been repeated without reexamination. Historians have often overlooked that substantive references to the Declaration of Independence stem from the eighteenth century, immediately after independence from Britain.

The extant evidence indicates just how much the Declaration affected the early American Republic. Between 1776 and 1812, the full text of the document was republished countless times in newspapers, books, and pamphlets. During that time, the document was often read in full at Independence Day ceremonies. The multiple discussions of the Declaration during that interval of time were about both America’s emancipation from British rule and the mandate to protect the people’s unalienable rights. The instrument was understood both as a decisive break from England and a statement of individual rights.

The Declaration of Independence incontrovertibly influenced a number of states’ constitutions. The Declaration expressed the common sentiments of the day that could be quoted verbatim, as New York did in its 1777 Constitution, or intellectually adopted, as Vermont did the same year as part of its Declaration of Rights. Other states, such as Georgia, included a passage in its 1777 constitution justifying the exercise of power to create a new government on the basis of “the independence of the United States of America ... declared on the fourth day of July, one thousand seven hundred and seventy-six.”

The Declaration also appeared in many contemporary statements about the significance of the Revolution. The same year that the Continental Congress voted for the Declaration of Independence, a variety of magazines, newspapers, books, and correspondences reprinted part or all of the document. In the early days of the Republic, authors referenced the Declaration simply as a statement about the transfer of sovereignty from Britain to America. Quite commonly, it was also discussed as a universal statement of rights.

Explanations about the decision to dissolve ties with England appear in writings to be linked with “the ... glorious struggle for Liberty and the natural Rights of mankind.” The sentiments of the Declaration were thought of in universal terms before 1790. This was due to the widespread consensus that humans have certain rights in common with all other persons. In some cases this was taken to a very progressive level of advocacy. For instance, an author writing under the rubric “Crito” in 1787 asserted that the Declaration of Independence was an indictment against the hypocrisy of slavery:

It was repeatedly declared in Congress, as language and sentiment of all these States, and by other public bodies of men, “that we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal: That they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights: That among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”: . . . . The Africans, and the blacks in servitude among us, were really as much included in these assertions as ourselves; and their right, unalienable right to liberty, and to procure and possess property, is as much asserted as ours. . . . And if we have not allowed them to enjoy these unalienable rights . . . we are guilty of a ridiculous, wicked contradiction and inconsistence.

In 1785, the Freeman’s Journal published an anonymous author’s letter with similar ideas about slavery. He quoted from and made specific reference to the Declaration of Independence in order to show that “this custom of enslaving and tyrannizing over our fellow creatures disgraces us.” A participant of 1788 Independence Day festivities in Philadelphia called for a celebration “of knowledge over ignorance, of virtue over vice, and of liberty over slavery. Abolitionist societies took up the theme, referring to the Declaration’s statements as “the principles of national justice.”

Anti-slavery advocates quickly picked up on the Declaration of Independence’s statement that all persons are born equal and endowed with inalienable rights. In one of the most eloquent Independence Day speeches of the early republic, delivered on July 5, 1800, someone only identified as a “A Lady” by a newspaper correspondent asserted that the principal cause of celebration was not military victory nor even independence from England, but “because the American people have calmly, and deliberately declared, that ‘all men are created EQUAL.’” On behalf of the nation, she begged forgiveness from “Ethiop, suffering brother” and implored him to “curse us not–some of us have principles of justice and bowels of compassion. ... Africa! Africa! ... Where we have excited murders, robberies, and burnings, that we might punish them in our won land with endless, hopeless slavery, on the victims of our subtilty [sic] and their innocent posterity -- Declaration of Independence! Where art thou now?”

Relying on a close study of the independence document, published in 1783, New Jersey Quaker leader David Cooper published two side-by-side columns. In the left-hand column, he quoted from the Declaration of Independence, emphasizing key passages: “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Adjacent to this quote, in the right-hand column, Cooper ripped slaveholders for their hypocrisy. “If these solemn truths, uttered at such an awful crisis, are self-evident: unless we can shew 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 slave-holders, and, by their legislative [conduct] tell us that these blessings were only meant to be the rights of whitemen not of all men.” The inhumanity of slavery and its incongruity to the Declaration’s aspirations became an oft elaborated theme in anti-slavery rhetoric that carried into the nineteenth century with the speeches and writings of William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, and Wendell Phillips.

From its very founding, the framers’ stated principles of sovereignty coupled with human rights, as they appeared in the Declaration of Independence, compelled Americans to look inward. The nation’s yearly celebration of independence connects us to the nation’s roots.

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