Democratic Congresswoman Maxine Waters of California condemned America’s founding document on July 4th, tweeting: “July 4th… & so, the Declaration of Independence says all men are created equal. Equal to what? What men? Only white men? Isn’t it something that they wrote this in 1776 when African Americans were enslaved? They weren’t thinking about us then, but we’re thinking about us now!”
Representative Waters’ Democratic colleague Cori Bush of Missouri pushed the point one step further. “When they say that the 4th of July is about American freedom, remember this: the freedom they’re referring to is for white people,” she tweeted. “This land is stolen land and Black people still aren’t free.”
I suspect that Abraham Lincoln would respectfully disagree. In one of the most significant speeches in the political history of the United States, America’s greatest president rejected arguments such as those by Reps. Waters and Bush.
In a June 26, 1857, address about the U.S. Supreme Court’s infamous Dred Scott decision earlier that year, then-Senate candidate Mr. Lincoln made clear that the Declaration’s avowal that “all men are created equal” provided the framework for slavery’s eventual demise. Lincoln said in his speech that the Founding Fathers who proclaimed that “all men are created equal” did not mean to assert “the obvious untruth” that “all were then actually enjoying that equality.” Rather, Lincoln insisted, “they meant simply to declare the right, so that the enforcement of it might follow as circumstances should permit.”
As Mr. Lincoln’s speech intimates, omitting Thomas Jefferson’s condemnation of slavery in the Declaration of Independence and including guarantees to slavery in the original Constitution were political compromises with the southern states that the Founders felt they had to make so the United States could become a nation in 1776 and create a strong central government in 1787, both of which were necessary if slavery was one day to be abolished.
It is, of course, appropriate to criticize the slow pace of equal rights in the United States. Indeed, Rep. Waters’ follow-up tweet did precisely that: “Further, the Dec. of Ind. says we hold these truths to be ‘self-evident’ … yet:
• 17 states have enacted voter suppression laws
• Supreme Court gutted Sec. 5 of the Voting Rights Act
• George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice.”
Where Rep.’s Waters and Bush were wrong, however, was to resurrect Chief Justice Roger Taney’s long-discredited reading of the Declaration of Independence from the Dred Scott decision.
Dred Scott involved a claim by a Black man, born into slavery, that his subsequent residence in a state and territory that prohibited slavery made him free. By a 7-to-2 vote, the Supreme Court, speaking through Chief Justice Taney, disagreed and went so far as to strike down the Missouri Compromise, a set of federal laws adopted in 1820 to maintain the balance between slave and non-slave states, on the ground that the Compromise violated the Fifth Amendment property rights of slave owners.
The Court conceded that the Declaration’s assertion that “all men are created equal … would seem to embrace the whole of the human family,” but the fact that many of the Founders themselves owned slaves led the Court to conclude otherwise. As Mr. Taney unconscionably phrased it, Blacks “had for more than a century been regarded as beings … so far inferior, that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”
Mr. Lincoln referred to Mr. Taney by name in his June 26, 1857, speech. For the reasons previously mentioned, he explicitly rejected Mr. Taney’s outrageous argument that the Founders only meant to guarantee equal rights for White men in the United States.
Mr. Lincoln closed his speech in a fashion that should inspire all of us—White and Black, Republican and Democrat—to treat everyone with human dignity. Mr. Lincoln said that America’s Founders “meant to set up a standard maxim for a free society, which could be familiar to all, and revered by all, constantly labored for, and even though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated, and thereby constantly spreading and deepening its influence and augmenting the happiness and value of life to all people of all colors everywhere.”
• Scott Douglas Gerber is a law professor at Ohio Northern University and an associated scholar at Brown University’s Political Theory Project. His nine books include “To Secure These Rights: The Declaration of Independence and Constitutional Interpretation” and “The Declaration of Independence: Origins and Impact.”