Truth v. Myth: The Declaration of Independence
Myth: America was not really founded on revolutionary ideals.
Supporting myth: Any revolutionary ideals that were in play at the time were betrayed by the Founders.
“Proof” of myth: Slavery was not outlawed in the United States.
We’re starting at the very beginning here. When the average American thinks of what she learned in school about “our country,” she flashes back to those paintings of the Founders, standing around a very small table in Philadelphia in 1776, and again around a very similar table in 1787. They’re all signing a paper—the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution. And thank God they are all signing one of these papers, because enshrined in each are the very ideals that make America the greatest nation on Earth.
So the young American is told, and if she thinks twice about it, she feels good about what she’s learned. America is all right.
But it isn’t long before her view of America is challenged, undermined, then violently overthrown. America is a lie, she’s told. The Founders were all rich white men. Rich white slaveholding men. Rich white slaveholding men who wouldn’t let women or poor people vote. The words of liberty and democracy and equality in their mouths were as false as their wooden teeth.
The clincher in this argument is the slavery. If the Founders were really revolutionaries who wanted to set up a totally new nation based on freedom and equality, they wouldn’t have allowed slavery.
This is a blow aimed at exceptionalism, the idea that America’s founding was a unique—and uniquely good—event in human history. But this idea is not a myth.
Were the Founders revolutionaries? Absolutely. We don’t call it the Conservation War. Or the Entrenchment War. It’s not the Reactionary War. It’s the Revolutionary War. The American Revolution. Because American people created a revolution in human thinking about government, the purpose of life, happiness, and freedom.
Most Americans were not pro-war in 1775, when the war started. Those who were won over changed their minds in part because they developed faith in the ideals that other Americans fought for.
Those ideals were very new. So new as to seem crazy. The ideals Americans fought for and that the Founders put on paper were unheard-of in 1775. And even afterward, when other nations attempted democratic revolutions, there were very few successes, and none that equaled America’s success. (We may refer to the case of France, et al.) Our ideals were revolutionary, and our method of putting those ideals into practice was revolutionary.
Let’s go back to the famous first line of the Declaration and really break it down:
“We” hold these truths: we, the American people. All of us. Average people, many with little education, do have ideas about social and political justice that matter to us. And we want to be governed by truths, ideas that are proven to increase the greater good, and not by command or force or superstition.
to be self-evident: after much rational examination and open debate (rather than decrees and papal bulls and torture and war), we find that our ideas about social and political justice hold water. In fact, they are so much more rational than the ideas currently in play—despotism, monarchy, serfdom—that their integrity is obvious.
that all men are created equal: Yes, it says “men” and not “people”. Does it mean that they wanted to make sure they stated that women are not created equal? No. It means that the Founders, as 18th-century people, referred to humanity as “men.” What they meant by it was “men of all classes,” and over time “men” would come to mean “men of all colors,” “men who don’t own property,” and more expansions. Eventually it would be expanded to mean “people—women and men.” The beauty of our founding documents is that they are made for continually expanding liberty. So, to go back to the original meaning, as Enlightenment thinkers, our Founders believed that social class did not dictate worth. The poor and the wealthy, the sick and the healthy, the smart and the dumb, are all equally valuable as human beings. Equality is not only a god-given right, but a god-given fact. And whether your god is God, Nature, Reason, or something else, you must acknowledge the equality of all people. No one is naturally inferior or superior. Society, prejudice, education, and other things raise and lower people, creating classes. But we all start out equally and naturally deserving of life and the opportunity to thrive (“equality of opportunity”).
Now we see why the Founders referred to equality and liberty as “natural rights.” You don’t earn them. You can’t buy them. No one confers them on you. You are born with them. So no one can take them away. All human beings have the natural right to equality of opportunity from day one, no matter who or where they are, or what they do. Find that in a nation-founding document anywhere in the world before America. I’m waiting.
and are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights: Equality has consequences. If and when you acknowledge equality, you are then forced to respect it. Equality is the basic natural right. There are other rights, just as free and just as inviolate.
that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of happiness: Life: no one can legally kill you. Liberty: no one can legally take away your natural rights. The pursuit of happiness: no one can legally interfere with your freedom to choose a career, a spouse, a religion, a political agenda. Name the land that made these guarantees before 1776. This is a huge promise, but it’s just the tip of the iceberg: “among these are” means that Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of happiness are just the top three of the many natural rights we have.
That’s one astounding sentence, that first sentence of the Declaration of Independence. Not just for its firm commitment to natural rights as a basis for establishing a real government rather than a basis for spinning fantasies, but also for its basic purpose: it presented intellectual reasons for the revolt.
Think back. How many rebellions have been premised on a philosophy of natural rights as opposed to, let’s say, plunder or revenge or racism or religion or empire-building? How many rebels have felt obliged to start from a rationally thought-out, philosophically stable, and morally defensible platform? That first sentence is astonishing in every way. Do we live up to it today? Do we even understand what there is to live up to?
Americans in 1776 were asked to support this wild statement of purpose, to fight and die for it. It was untested. No one had ever attempted to put these principles into practice. Even John Locke, the English philosopher who formulated the most complete and coherent philosophy of natural rights (and the man from whom we borrowed, with one crucial change, the phrase “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”) didn’t think a working government could be based on preserving the natural rights of average citizens.
No republic prior to the American Revolution had ever survived for very long, and no people had ever tried to create a republic out of such a huge landmass as the American colonies. Not only did the colonies represent a large territory, but they had a long history of fighting with each other. Inter-colony cooperation was almost non-existent.
Another obstacle to success is that revolutionaries are usually bad at nation-building. They fight. They don’t create. And they don’t work well together because they don’t have the patience for protocol and order. Each one’s own fiery vision is all he will allow. If revolutionary leaders disagree with each other, they break into warring factions, and revolution becomes civil war, which becomes terror ultimately leading to dictatorship.
Now the American Founders (the men in the room in the paintings) disagreed with each other on many points. Arguments about what the United States should do and mean raged like wildfires in those stately, paralyzed rooms we see in the paintings. People insulted each other. They hated each other. But we didn’t lapse into civil war, or terror, or dictatorship. Why?
Because those Founders had many years’ experience arguing with each other, and they realized that the purpose of argument was to come to a new understanding and agreement on the issues. Argument wasn’t a tool to establish their own power, or to sabotage others, or to shoot down new ideas. Argument was a way to clarify things, to get to the truth of things.
These men debating the Declaration really, truly wanted to do something that had never been done before. They really wanted to base a government on preservation of natural rights. They really did see their chance to change the world. They were not just rich white men in wigs trying to grab power. Most of them already had power and money. When they argued, it was most often because they were truly worried that someone was on the wrong track, and would prevent them from accomplishing their earth-shaking goal.
So they created a system of government that allowed for argument. We have been safely and productively arguing about our principles and ideals for a few centuries now, and we are able to do so because of the system the Founders created.
So what about slavery, then? I cover this topic in Truth v. Myth: Slavery in our Democracy and in The Constitution and Slavery. Basically, if the many Founders who wanted to outlaw slavery in the new nation had done so, the southern states would have withdrawn, leaving the other states primed to do the same. The choice was this: have a flawed nation, or have no nation at all. Certain that slavery was on the way out, the Founders decided to take the flawed nation.
Not a happy choice, but think about it: it is pretty certain the states left after southern secession would have broken apart, too, leaving no U.S. at all. As it was, the U.S. allowed slavery, argued over slavery for the next 74 years, collapsed in civil war over it, then abolished it. Slavery was never a done deal. There was never a time in the U.S. when it wasn’t controversial and dangerous. People understood that slavery was a slap in the face to the democracy we set up.
It took a lot longer than the Founders expected for slavery to die, and it took a civil war, which they never expected. But their compromise with slavery, however grim, was one they saw as temporary and a means to an end–the end of slavery, and the continuation of the democratic experiment that was and is the United States.