“We, the people” seem to enjoy sleeping on our comfortable bed of myths about the United States’ “founding fathers,” documents and creeds. Every 4th of July, we seem to remake this bed of mythology.
It is a bed that comforts our belief in American exceptionalism. It is bed that comforts our belief that the United States is the leader of the free world. It is a bed that comforts our belief that US ideals are inherently good. It is a bed that comforts our belief that the founders of the United States were great men who did great things for us, like creating this great country.
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“We, the people” seem to avoid the hard floor of truth. And too often, our historians and memories are hindered by duty, blinded by patriotism and restrained by ideology in splashing water on us, in soiling our bed of mythology, in forcing us to wake up to the complex and sometimes awful truth of the American foundation.
Then again, more and more historians in recent years have forced our memories to wake up from the bed of mythology, especially to the complicated truth of Thomas Jefferson. But as awake as we seem to be about Jefferson’s ugly affairs as a slavemaster — and similar ugly affairs by other “founding fathers” — “we, the people” still seem to be commonly sleeping on the comforting bed regarding Jefferson’s greatest achievement and the most cherished of all the founding documents.
Here are three comforting myths about the Declaration of Independence.
1. The Declaration of Independence is the United States’ cornerstone of freedom.
Before countless sporting events today, Americans will stand more upright than usual. Their right hands will be spread wider than usual over their hearts. Americans will sing louder than usual to the heavens about their United States being “the land of the free.” Some Americans will visit “the charters of freedom” in the National Archives, and read about the “Declaration of Independence” being “the nation’s most cherished symbol of liberty.” In celebrating the Declaration, Americans are thought to be celebrating freedom, “the cornerstone” of their republic, as a columnist recently described it in a Wisconsin newspaper. Even the leaders of the Confederate states believed this myth long ago, which is why Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens announced on March 21, 1861, that they were building their “new government” on a different “corner-stone” — Black slavery. Freedom from slavery and oppression is considered the single American cornerstone, laid out best in the Declaration. As Louisianan Steve Casey recently affirmed this common belief, “the Declaration of Independence was a milestone in the battle for freedom for all people” against slavery and oppression.
From the Revolutionary War to the Civil War, abolitionists incessantly referenced the Declaration to advocate their cause. But its widespread anti-slavery use does make the document anti-slavery. Its widespread freedom use does not make the document the cornerstone of US freedom.
The Declaration of Independence actually heralded the two opposing American cornerstones of freedom: (1) the acknowledged freedom from enslavement and oppression, and (2) the rarely acknowledged freedom to enslave and oppress. That was how Thomas Jefferson and his fellow slaveholding delegates could call “liberty” an “unalienable right” when they enslaved people. That was how these rich white men could chronicle all those “injuries and usurpations” they were suffering from the British, while not conveying that they were similarly injuring and usurping people on US soil who were not rich and white and male.
In fact, these rich white men derided “the merciless Indian Savages” in the Declaration, criminalized rebelling Africans as “insurrectionists” and silenced women. John Adams, who helped Jefferson draft the Declaration, had already sent a letter home to his wife, Abigail, to “laugh” at her strivings for women’s rights. White “children and Apprentices were disobedient” as a result of “our struggle,” Adams said the delegates had been told. “Indians slighted their guardians and Negroes grew insolent to their Masters.”
These “founding fathers” wanted freedom from British enslavers and oppressors — and freedom to enslave and oppress. Indigenous people, African people, women and poor whites contested them from the start, desiring freedom from slavery and oppression. Freedom to enslave and oppress as opposed to freedom from enslavement and oppression — the United States has been ideologically built on these two opposing cornerstones of freedom in the Declaration. That is how both the oppressors and oppressed can complain for 240 years about the other taking away their freedoms.
2. Taxation without representation principally drove this class of wealthy white slaveholders and merchants to declare independence from England.
“‘Taxation without representation!’ was the battle cry in America’s 13 Colonies, which were forced to pay taxes to England’s King George III despite having no representation in the British Parliament.” Thus begins PBS’ “History of America’s Independence Day,” one of online materials for its coverage of the Independence Day celebration known as “A Capitol Fourth.” The history continues, “As dissatisfaction grew, British troops were sent in to quell the early movement toward rebellion. Repeated attempts by the Colonists to resolve the crisis without military conflict proved fruitless.” The 13 colonies then went ahead and severed “ties with Great Britain.”
This popular historical account is as mythical as it is overly simplified. Something else was also decisive in causing the 56 “founding fathers” — who represented a different set of economic interests than most Americans — to declare independence from England. And these two other “injuries and usurpations” were briefly mentioned in the Declaration and have been briefly mentioned during Independence Day celebrations ever since.
In the first, the inability of wealthy slaveholders and merchants to buy and sell goods and services outside of the British Empire caused their businesses to suffer dearly and to be exploited dearly by British firms. That’s why the “founding fathers” chided the British king for “cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world” in the Declaration. That’s why the “founding fathers” rejoiced Scottish philosopher Adam Smith, who condemned England’s trade acts for constraining the “free” market in his bestseller in 1776, The Wealth of Nations. It is still an open question as to whether these rich delegates would have declared independence in 1776 if they could freely and safely trade outside of the British Empire.
It is also an open question if the pro-slavery delegates would have declared independence in 1776 if anti-slavery ideas and usurpations were not sailing from London; if tens of thousands of Africans were not running away from their plantations and setting up their own frontier communities; if runaways were not engaging in bloody insurrections using arms supplied by the British; if Indigenous soldiers were not fiercely defending their lives and lands. Historian Gerald Horne recently made a compelling case that the “founding fathers” declared independence and went to war as a conservative “counter-revolution” to preserve their slaveholding and landed rights from the British and put down the growing slave revolt in 1776. In this sense, the “founding fathers” went to war against the British, indigenous, and African rebels to “effect,” as the Declaration attests, “their safety & happiness.”
3. The statement “all men are created equal” was — and is — an anti-racist idea of human equality.
Americans commonly believe that the United States was “founded” on the “principle” of “equality” and that this founding principle is derived from the Declaration’s “all men are created equal.” As President Barack Obama proclaimed in his second inaugural address on January 21, 2013, “We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths — that all of us are created equal — is that star that guides us still.” Republican evangelist and Obama critic Mark D. Tooley concurred in early June. “The Declaration of Independence and its historically revolutionary affirmation of human equality have uplifted and inspired hundreds of millions of people globally of all races and ethnicities.”
“Created” is commonly overlooked in the rush to “equal.” But “created” is the most revealing and historically grounded word in this iconic phrase. Thomas Jefferson wrote during the full-blown Enlightenment era debate on the creation of races, among towering intellectuals like Voltaire, David Hume, Lord Kames and Immanuel Kant. Some intellectuals leaned on Christian scripture and professed all racial groups are the same species with the same creation story, or monogenesis. Their heretic opponents argued polygenesis, or that racial groups are different species with different creation stories. Despite their conflict on creation, both monogenesists and polygenesists tended to affirm Kant’s racist declaration that “humanity is at its greatest perfection in the race of whites.”
Americans are hardly taught this intellectual history, thus producing and reproducing the myth that the racial equality debate is a two-sided debate about creation; that the two strains of conflicting racial thought are the racist idea that “all men are created unequal” and the anti-racist idea that “all men are created equal.” In fact, these conflicting ideas have been at the base of two strains of racist thought. Then and now, the more well-known strain of racist thought — based on the creed “all men are created unequal” — segregated the races by nature and imagined a genetic racial hierarchy. The lesser-known strain of racist thought — based on the creed “all men are created equal” — equalizes the racial groups by nature and imagined a behavioral racial hierarchy. These “assimilationists” believed that non-whites have been “made … by time and circumstances … inferior to the whites,” as Thomas Jefferson penned in 1785. Trying to reverse this, these well-meaning assimilationists have spent their reformist lives — and the life of the United States — trying to “civilize” and “develop” the behaviors of non-whites.
Historian Stephen E. Ambrose classed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal” as a “perfect sentence.” It is not. A perfectly egalitarian sentence would have ended: “all human groups are equal.” This is the creed of anti-racism. All human groups are biologically and behaviorally equal; they are all on the same level despite their physical and cultural differences. The founding fathers dismissed this creed, stirring from some abolitionists, as fanciful in 1776 — and it has been widely dismissed as nonsensical ever since. “All human groups are equal” had no chance of making it into the Declaration — and over the last 240 years, this anti-racist idea has rarely made it into the mainstream of racial thought.