By Alexander Tsesis, a professor at Loyola University, Chicago, School of Law
Constitutional scholars often treat the Declaration of Independence as a relic of a bygone era. My recent book, For Liberty and Equality: The Life and Times of the Declaration of Independence (Oxford University Press 2012), shows how out of step that thinking is with social movements. Some of the most progressive groups in this country’s history based their demands for change, justice, and equality on the grand statements of the nation’s manifesto. Unlike constitutional scholars, manhood suffragists, abolitionists, woman suffragists, labor organizers, and a host of other progressives turned to the Declaration to condemn the hypocrisies of the Constitution.
From the earliest days of the Republic, anti-slavery activists decried the incompatibility of adopting the universal sounding language of the Declaration of Independence while providing constitutional protections for the institution of slavery. In 1783, New Jersey Quaker leader David Cooper underscored the contradictions between Revolutionary principles of equality and the institution of slavery in two, side-by-side columns. He quoted from the Declaration in the left-hand column and in the right-hand column condemned those signatories of the document who were slaveholders, speaking of the blessings of liberty while securing it only for white men. Even that characterization of American democracy was too generous given the endemic racism that spilled over far beyond the boundaries of slave plantations.
The manhood suffrage movement of the early nineteenth century turned to the Declaration’s principles of equality to vindicate the right of propertiless white men to vote. Laborers complained that in a country committed to liberty, equality, and the pursuit of happiness an aristocratic democracy had been erected on the backs of the workingman. Writing about political equality in 1800, Thomas Paine’s biographer, James Cheetham, interpreted the Declaration of Independence’s words that “all men are created equal” to include “the political equality of man.” From this followed the principle that “the right of suffrage cannot . . . belong to a part without belonging to the whole.”