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.

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39 Responses to “Truth v. Myth: The Declaration of Independence”

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Nice work here and in the other posts. I’d add, however, that the element of the Creator in this post deserves more attention. If those rights came from any human source, then humans could take them away. The example of the French Revolution, which also proclaimed liberty and equality but denied any supra-human source for rights, illustrates the significance of the concept to the Declaration. Indeed, it seems that the very idea of a Creator as a source of ultimate moral authority allows commoners to hold rulers to account in a way that no other philosophical concept does. Revolutions and systems that elevate “the people” as the ultimate source of authority have most notably produced tyranny. The Founders were quite clear on the matter – Adams most explicitly, but by no means only.

Hello Lee. It’s true that natural rights were considered to be God-given by most of the Founders, though their exact views on religion are endlessly debated (see the blog American Creation). Elevating the people to be the judges of who had rights was, as you say, anathema to most of the Founders, especially Adams. But they did rely on human intelligence and diligence and inspiration to create the government that would uphold and promote natural rights, and that was my focus here. Thanks for your comment! It adds an important dimension to the discussion.

1. Name a country in 1776 that had outlawed or banned slavery.

2. Who prevented the abolition of slavery after the Revolution?

3. What is historical context?

agreed…lame paragraph, in an otherwise great intro. no insult meant. but that part of the DoI is my favroite. What are y’alls opinion of Wallbuilders?

Not sure how the French Revolution “denied any supra-human source for rights” given the Declaration of the Rights of Man in 1789 “…recognizes and proclaims, in the presence and under the auspices of the SUPREME BEING, the following rights of man and of the citizen…[emphasis added]”. While one can certainly debate the sincerity of the authors to write these words, it occupies as much of their founding document as the Declaration of Independence.

Hello–you make a good point! I suppose I was extrapolating from later events in their revolution, where it seemed that the Supreme Being who granted rights (or not) was the revolutionary cabal itself.

@thehistoricpresent Hello, my comment was directed at the initial 2009 comment suggesting a spiritually sterile French Revolution. It seem that many scholars – including myself, at times – are inclined to offhandedly dismiss the failures of other revolutions/movements/struggles as one in which they lacked certain attributes of their focus of study. This is dangerous bias in a comparative analysis because it implies that unless certain levers are pulled or are present to be pulled, i.e. conditions that existed in the American Revolution, revolution or change cannot happen elsewhere. Furthermore, we risk over- or under- emphasizing factors in a very complicated event by comparing two different contexts. While a lot of what is said of the French Revolution is fair of its decent, there has to be greater understanding of the wholly difficult context in which those revolutionaries operated.

Your takeaway of how “they did rely on human intelligence and diligence and inspiration to…uphold and promote natural rights” seems a conclusion heading in the right direction. I’ve looked at interpretations on the applicability of the Declaration and find many searching for a historical source of legitimacy for 1) America’s Christian disposition or 2) the right to rebel or succeed from a tyrannical government – including the current. While not passing academic judgment on these interpretations, it does seems that spirit of the Enlightenment in which the founders were steeped is lost in favor of word searches for mentions of divinity as proof of theocratic intent and exceptionalism.

It is also interesting to note that there were many black Founding Fathers throughout the Revolutionary War and that any colony that tried to abolish slavery prior to the war was overturned by the King, despite England already outlawing it. There was an agreement in 1787 to give the south 20 years to abolish slavery and January 1, 1808 the US abolished the import of slaves (1 year after the UK did so).

It’s funny how people don’t remember how unracist and unified the US was (mostly in the north) prior to the Civil War and even prior to the 1910s.

Good post then. I would only bring up two important points. First, we are not a democracy. Our founders loathed democracy. We are a republic. this is not just a technicality. This is essential to understanding human nature and their governments. Here are a couple of quotes to back this statement up. “Democracy is nothing more than mob rule, where 51% of the people can take away the rights of the other 49%” – Thomas Jefferson

“Democracy is two wolves and a lamb deciding on what to have for lunch. Liberty is a well armed lamb contesting the vote.” – Benjamin Franklin
But do a bit of digging for yourself on this.
Second, it should interest you to read the “original rough draft of the Declaration of independence” to see that Jefferson included an anti-slavery passage as one of the tyrannys carried out by king george. Here is the text:
he has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating it’s most sacred rights of life & liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. this piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the CHRISTIAN king of Great Britain. determined to keep open a market where MEN should be bought & sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce: and that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them, by murdering the people upon whom he also obtruded them; thus paying off former crimes committed against the liberties of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another.
This quells any arguments that Jefferson was just an evil slave owner I would say! Hopefully that gives you a bit more firepower. keep up the good work.
P.S. Slavery was NOT the motivating factor for the War of Northern aggression. This is also a revisionist myth.

Hello Colonial Revolutionary, and thanks for posting. The original drafts of the Declaration are indeed very interesting, and your point is a good one about slavery in the early versions. We’ll have to disagree on slavery and the Civil War, however (see Amazing Fact! The Civil War was fought over slavery).

The Hampton Roads Peace Conference During the War Between the States
by John V. Denson

Most establishment historians today might as well be the Orwellian historians writing for the Ministry of Truth in George Orwell’s novel 1984, especially in relation to the War Between the States. They rarely, if ever, mention the Hampton Roads Peace Conference which occurred in February of 1865, because it brings into question most of the mythology promoted today which states that Lincoln and the North fought the war for the purpose of abolishing slavery and the South fought for the purpose of protecting it, and therefore, it was a great and noble war.

The story of the peace conference is related by a participant who was vice-president of the Confederacy, Alexander H. Stephens, in volume two of his work entitled A Constitutional View of the War Between the States: Its Causes, Character, Conduct and Results, at pages 589 through 625.

The story begins in early January of 1865…

Thanks for writing in, colonialrevolutionary; I couldn’t post your entire essay—can you please give everyone a URL where they can read all of it?

Agreed, the USConst states that the Fed shall guarantee a republican form of govt to every state.

Civil war wasn’t indirectly fought over slavery, it was about protecting the Union and how the South seceded from the Union in addition for states rights.

Hello all, thanx a lot for this blog ….. Thiswas exactly what I was looking for.

Here is where you can find the entire Hampton roads eace conference. I don’t know if this link will work, or if you will have to copy and paste it into your browser. Enjoy!

http://www.lewrockwell.com/orig2/denson6.html

According to none other than Southern leaders, especially Vice President Stephens, the Founding Fathers all intended slavery would somehow end.

The Confederate leaders boasted that they were founded on “exactly the opposite” idea of the Declaration of INdependence. They didn’t just admit this, they bragged about it.

In the “Cornerstone” Speech, Stephens said the Founding Fathers were wrong – God did not create all men equal. If God created all men equal, then the North was right. But God created the black man as inferior and fit only for servitude.

The Confederacy, said Stephens and Davis both, was founced on “the cornerstone” of slavery. Slavery ordained by God Almighty.

If you havent read the Cornerstone speech by Stephens, you can’t grasp the degree to which the South was boasting, and bragging about their foundation of slavery – just the OPPOSITE (their exact words — just the opposite) of the Declaration of Independence.

I should also say that I am glad slavery ended. I think that was the ONLY good result of the war between the States. I just wish that we could have ended it without losing our soveriegnty as States and our Federal government assuming dominion over our lives. This was the true cost of the war of northern agression.

The ideals that were fought for in the American Revolution were so ‘new’ and ‘world-changing’ that they had been fought for in the English Civil War circa. 100 years previously, and so ‘new’ that the working class population of Britain itself supported the actions of the colonists. It was not a war of independence, rather an assertion of human rights. It was never US v Britain, rather ‘the people’ v the ‘King’. We are the same: always were, always will be.

Hello LJ; thanks for commenting. I love the topic of the ECW, and am interested in your points. That war was fought to establish the dominance of Parliament (the legislature) over the king (the executive) and thus to bring the king under rule of law. This is proto-democracy: it does not extend the franchise to a wide swathe of society; it does not call for an elected executive; it does not guarantee anyone’s civil rights, let alone natural rights. It is a crucial step that of course the Founders were inheritors of, but our Revolutionary War went much farther in establishing representative democracy and a Bill of Rights. British public reaction to the war was indeed mixed; some were for, some against. But they certainly saw it as a revolution, and the Founders certainly did see it as the United States v. Britain once our nation was established in 1776 (though of course it had taken decades to get to that point, and many Americans would continue to think of themselves as Britons during the war). The United States is completely the child of centuries of English and then British people working to move power from one individual who was the law to the people and their elected representatiives; it was the Americans who finally brought that process to its completion.

Thank Heaven there are people like you who take a loving enough approach to our history to understand it for what it truly is. Very well done, indeed!

Thanks Avomnia! A loving objectivity, is how we like to think of it.

Democracy? Here is the D index to the constitution:
Defense, Congress power
District of Columbia
Double Jeopardy
Due process of law

Where is Democracy? Find it and give us the page in the constitution that says anything about Democracy!!!

Hello; thanks for writing. I believe democracy is referenced on all the pages devoted to a representative government.

I know this in an old article, but I couldn’t help but comment. It seems what you’re promoting is moral relativism. If morality is not objective but rather relative, then one can conclude that it was alright for the Founding Fathers to allow slavery, because slavery is not objectively wrong in all circumstances. If, however, you believe as I do that morality is absolute, then condoning, allowing, or promoting slavery is always wrong. Therefore, the decision of our Founding Fathers at the Constitutional Convention to protect slavery was heinous. A country that allowed a race of people to be enslaved did not deserve to exist and was certainly no beacon of liberty.

Hello, and thanks for writing. The point I’m making is that those Founders who did believe slavery was abhorrent realized that their pro-slavery colleagues would not join the United States if slavery was abolished. The anti-slavery Founders a) believed that the only way to end slavery in their land was to create a new democratic nation, and b) that nation would not be founded if the southern states did not join the US. If the US never happened, slavery would never end, so they chose to allow slavery in the new nation just to bring that nation into being. They believed that people who lived in liberty would quickly reject slavery and it would be outlawed by the next generation.
It’s not a great compromise, and some of those Founders were ashamed of it, but the others were hopeful. It’s hard to put ourselves in their shoes. Would we really say they should have let the whole idea of the United States go down the drain rather than accept slavery? It’s hard to picture the world that would have resulted–no US, dozens of small republics, most likely at war with each other, no rise of representative democracy in the world… as it was, within 87 years slavery was ended in the US, and we have before us as modern Americans the constant shameful reminder of what happens when not everyone in the nation is truly committed to liberty and justice for all.

I respect your opinion, and I believe you’re a capable historian. I also want to thank you for responding to my point in a respectful manner, because some people will just blow up at me for saying stuff like this. But yes, I really would say that it would have been better to have no U.S. than a U.S. with slavery, because a country that practices human bondage does not deserve to exist. Were there ways of ending slavery that didn’t involve the United States being formed? It’s possible. Because of the Constitution, slaves who escaped North were still required to be returned South. Hence, freedom began under British jurisdiction, in Canada. With two separate nations, slaves could have been allowed refuge in the North. Slaves would have outnumbered whites in some parts of the South and might have been in a better position to rebel, aided by Yankee abolitionists. Once the South and the North became one country, however, the Northerners were obligated to end slavery immediately, everywhere. Hence, I believe that Lincoln was right to stop the South from seceding to protect slavery, even though the 16th president’s motivations for pursuing the war were not necessarily pure. My position is a lot like that of Wendell Phillips, who condemned the founders for allowing slavery in order to form the country but later supported the Union cause as a means of achieving abolition. At any rate, I am a moral absolutist, so I have a bias that causes me to come to a different conclusion than a lot of people. I don’t know how controversial your views are where you live, but I get a lot of heat for saying things like this in my native Georgia.

Yes it was a compromise, the permission of the abomination of slavery, was wrong. I both understand the choice and would have railed against the choice at the time and I am sure the English would have supported the southern colonies against the northern colonies and there would have been no USA. This very alliance, the south and the English, is was what kept the civil war long past when it should have been over sparing the live of 610,000 soles, the price we paid for the abomination of slavery.

I agree with pretty much everything you said, and I still maintain that the compromise was wrong, which seems to be what you’re saying. So we really don’t have much of a disagreement. Quite frankly, a country that needs slavery to survive deserves to fall.

The United States was an is a puppet government under British control. The fact that these founding fathers wrote an article of incorporation an put on a show. To fool all in to thinking that United States is an independent nation is pure foolishness. The pure fact that if you weren’t apart of the elite as it is today you aren’t free. These individual only cared about themselves an what ever allegiances they had to the king an queen at the time.

America started as a republic not a democracy for white christians. You had to be white man and a land holder. Slavery has squat to do with anything. The mistake was the traitors within who proposed a constitution.

It would seem that the emphasis on whiteness would prevent slavery of black people from meaning squat.

The first slaves where white people, that slavery was ended. The African slave trade was run by the money changers who had the power to thwart the revolution.

“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.”

Come again. There were no “Southern States” when the Constitution was written. There were only 13 colonies, situtated primarily in the Northeast region.

Hello Kathey; thanks for writing. There actually were states when the Constitution was written. The 13 colonies declared themselves to be the United States of America in the Declaration of Independence in 1776. You’re right that there were more northern than southern states, but that doesn’t affect the argument that if the southern states had withdrawn from the United States, some of states remaining would likely have left at some point as well, whenever a big conflict came up. The precedent would have been set that if a state disagreed with an action of the U.S. it could just secede. Despite what some Confederate apologists will tell you, that was not set as a precedent, in part because the delegates agreed to give in to pro-slavery delegates to preserve the union.

In the book entitled “REASSESING THE presidency ,THE RISE OF THE EXECUTIVE STATE AND THE DECLINE OF FREEDOM.” by
J Denson. Reading in chapters 4,5,8,10,12,15,16,17,18,19,22. Chapter Eight is entitled “Lincoln and the first shot, A study of deceit and deception” I see that the decline of freedom began very slowly. The United States has a cancer that is just now being detected. The problem with cancer is that it spreads very slowly not leaving signs of its presence. It may be too late !
In grammar school in Texas we all sang a song THE EYES OF TEXAS.. We were being prepared.
Here are the words!!!!
The eyes of TEXAS are upon you
All the live long day
The eyes of TEXAS are upon YOU
You cannot get AWAY
Do not think you can ESCAPE them
At night or early in the morn
The EYEs of TEXAS are upon you
Till GABRIAL blows his horn.
I never knew what I was singing till just a few months ago !! You can replace the word TEXAS with certain 3 letter acronym which you already know.
Just a parting statement. The Battle of the ALAMO is a MYTH. It did not happen that way. I researched it well.

Er t he revolutionary war was a civil war or did you take lessons from Donald Duck The War of Independence plays such an important part in American popular ideology that references to it are especially prone to exaggeration and oversimplification. And two uncomfortable truths about it – the fact that it was a civil war (perhaps 100,000 loyalists fled abroad at its end), and that it was also a world war (the Americans could scarcely have won without French help) – are often forgotten.

Hello Paul; the Revolution was indeed folded into the ongoing struggle between Britain and France. One of the main reasons for Britain’s decision to seek a peace treaty was that it had rather not divert too much military power from its sugar islands in the Caribbean fighting to keep the much less profitable 13 colonies (and was worried that French ships purportedly going to the 13 colonies would really divert south and seize those sugar islands). The U.S. would be brought into that Franco-British conflict many times before it was finally resolved. I don’t think that’s an “uncomfortable truth”–why would it be? There are civil war aspects to the conflict that are fruitful to explore; again, I don’t see how that is uncomfortable. The only uncomfortable truth about the Revolutionary War is that Americans study it so little compared to the Civil War and WWII.


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