“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.”
Written in the Declaration of Independence, that was perhaps the most important, the apical motivating principle that brought America into being as the United States. But the only way to bind the various States together in unity was to narrowly define “men” as White Christian Males. Thus in the two centuries before the Civil War, African-Americans were considered as property and not humans. In the following century, slavery was abolished but the country struggled to broadly define “men” as all humans regardless of color. We are now faced with a political divide in our country in which the narrow definition of “men” once again threatens to deprive another group of people of their humanity.
One side of that divide might very well be rewriting the Declaration as “all men are not created equal, that they are not endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.”
Andrew Delbanco, a professor of American studies at Columbia, writes in the New York Times about The Long Struggle for America’s Soul. Alarmingly he says : Apparently, the self-evident truth that all people deserve life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness is far from settled.
I’m skipping the details of his history and fast-forwarding to the conclusion.
There is an aphorism attributed to Mark Twain (though no evidence exists that he ever said it) that while history does not repeat itself, it does rhyme. The story of the fugitive slave crisis is a rhyming story filled with echoes in our own time.
… the strongest “rhyme” between fugitive slaves in the 19th century and illegal immigrants today is their shared anguish — the “degenerating sense of nobodiness,” in the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s devastating phrase — inflicted by a society that treats them as non-persons. People demeaned in this way forced Americans then, and force us now, to confront the central question of our history: Who is — or isn’t — recognized as fully human? Our Declaration of Independence was supposed to answer this question with the proposition that “all men are created equal” and “endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights,” including “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
At certain decisive moments in our history, attempts have been made to extend this principle beyond the cadre of the propertied white males who first articulated it. In 1854, as the crisis over slavery deepened, Abraham Lincoln called upon America to “readopt the Declaration of Independence, and with it the practices and policy which harmonize with it.” By destroying slavery, the Civil War brought what he called a “new birth of freedom” for black Americans. The postwar constitutional amendments sought to guarantee the rights of citizenship — notably the right to vote — to all American men, including former slaves and naturalized immigrants. The New Deal tried to protect vulnerable citizens from the destructive effects of dynamic capitalism. The Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s tried to dismantle the legacy of slavery in the form of Jim Crow.
But if we’ve learned anything in the age of Trump, it’s that rights can also be constricted and rescinded. The self-evident truth that all people deserve life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness is a long way from settled in the American mind. The question of who is considered fully human has returned with a vengeance.
[Delbanco is] the author, most recently, of “The War Before the War: Fugitive Slaves and the Struggle for America’s Soul From the Revolution to the Civil War,” from which this essay draws.