Monday, April 22, 2024

The Evolutionary Origins of the American People in the Declaration of Independence

                                   John Trumbull's Painting "The Declaration of Independence"

"When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the Powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation."

From the beginning of the Declaration of Independence, the reader must wonder about its assertion of peoplehood.  What makes a people "one people" separate from other peoples?  This is the question posed today by Trump and other "populist" leaders around the world, who claim to defend the "people" against the evil elites who are "the enemies of the people."  Does the identity of a people depend on their shared ethnicity or race, as the ethnic nationalists would say?  Or can the identity of the American people arise from their dedication to the principles of equality of rights in the Declaration of Independence, which would allow for a multiethnic and pluralistic national identity?

I have argued that Abraham Lincoln was right to root the national identity of the American people in the Declaration of Independence as the moral foundation for the Constitution.  I have also argued that the Declaration of Independence expresses the political thought of John Locke, and therefore we can see the evolutionary history of America as the symbolic niche construction of Lockean liberalism.

The best objection to all of this is that it is based on two historical myths--the myth that the Declaration of Independence is a Lockean document and the myth that the story of the American people is the story of their efforts to fulfill the principles of the Declaration of Independence.  I have answered the first charge in my response to Claire Rydell Arcenas's book on Locke in America.  But I have not yet answered the second charge, which was most fully developed in Pauline Maier's book American Scripture (1997) and in an article in the Washington and Lee Law Review (1999) that summarized the argument of her book.

I will begin in this post with what Maier identifies as the best statement of the myth of the Declaration of Independence--by Lincoln.  Then, in a second post, I will survey Maier's account of how that myth emerged in the first 100 years of the Declaration from 1776 to 1876.  Finally, in a third post, I will argue that contrary to Maier, this myth is a true myth:  it is not a fictional fabrication of American history but a discovery of the historical truth of the Lockean story of America as captured in the Declaration of Independence.


The best and most influential proponent of the myth of the Declaration of Independence that Maier wanted to debunk was Lincoln.  The most memorable statement of that myth is Lincoln's Gettysburg Address.

"Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal."

When I was a fifth-grade schoolchild in DeSoto, Missouri, my teacher (Helen Rolfing) required all of her students to memorize the Gettysburg Address.  Each of us had to stand before the class one by one and recite it.  I remember that while the beginning and the end were easier to remember, the middle was hard--"But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate--we can not consecrate--we can not hallow--this ground."  

We were being indoctrinated in the catechism of America's political religion.  We had little understanding of what it all meant, except that it had something to do with equality, freedom, and the Civil War.  As we looked up at the wall behind the teacher, we saw two big pictures--George Washington on the left and Abraham Lincoln on the right.  We learned the stories about Washington as the Father of the County and Lincoln as the Savior of the Country in the Civil War--whose saving message was expressed in the Gettysburg Address.

We were confused by the first sentence--what's a "score"?  Miss Rolfing explained that "score" was the language of the King James Bible meaning "twenty."  So, "four score and seven years ago," calculated from 1863, when Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address, would have pointed back to 1776 and the Declaration of Independence.  "Our fathers brought forth" the new American nation when it was dedicated to the principles of the Declaration of Independence--particularly, "the proposition that all men are created equal."

Many years later, as a college student, and as a college professor teaching a course on Abraham Lincoln, I saw the subtleties of the Gettysburg Address that I could not see as a fifth grader.  While the Declaration of Independence holds it to be "self-evident" that all men are created equal, Lincoln speaks of this as a "proposition."  In Euclidean geometry, which Lincoln studied, a "proposition" is a statement that is "proposed" to be true, and it must be proven to be true, in contrast to a self-evident truth or axiom that we know to be true without any need for proof.  In 1859, Lincoln had said that "the principles of Jefferson are the definitions and axioms of free society" (Speeches and Writings, 2:19).  As an example of an axiom in Euclidean geometry, that two lines equal to a third are equal to one another is a self-evident truth about equality.

But that all men are created equal did not seem to be an axiomatic or self-evident truth in 1863, because Americans were fighting a civil war caused by a disagreement over whether that was true, or whether its truth meant that slavery was morally wrong.  The second sentence of the Gettysburg Address pointed to that disagreement: "Now we are engaged in a great civil war testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure."  But this "test" in the American Civil War seemed to be not so much a test of the truth of a proposition about equality as a test of endurance or strength in war.

Lincoln's Gettysburg Address was delivered at a ceremony to dedicate a cemetery for those who died in the Battle of Gettysburg in Pennsylvania, which had become the bloodiest battle of the Civil War, and a decisive victory for the Union, fought near the anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, July 1-3, 1863.  A day later, on July 4th, the Union won another decisive victory when the Confederates surrendered to General Grant at Vicksburg, Mississippi, which gave the Union complete control of the Mississippi River, splitting the Confederacy in half.  Was Lincoln suggesting that the military victory of the Union in defeating the Confederacy would "prove" the truth of the proposition of human equality in the Declaration of Independence?  If so, would that mean that might does make right?

In 1838, in his Address to the Young Men's Lyceum, Lincoln had said that the American revolutionary founders "aspired to display before an admiring world, a practical demonstration of the truth of a proposition, which had hitherto been considered, at best no better, than problematical; namely, the capability of a people to govern themselves" (Speeches and Writings, 1:34).  Perhaps, then, in the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln was suggesting that a Union victory in the Civil War would be "a practical demonstration of the truth of a proposition"--namely, the capability of a people dedicated to popular government based on the principle of human equality to defeat a military insurrection designed to overturn that government as founded on that principle.

Surprisingly, however, Lincoln implied that both the Union and the Confederate soldiers who died at Gettysburg sacrificed themselves to preserve the American nation.  "We are met on a great battlefield of that war.  We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live.  It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this."

"But, in a larger sense," Lincoln observed, we cannot dedicate this ground beyond what the "brave men, living and dead, who struggled here" have already done.  "It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced."

Lincoln then concluded with his longest sentence, about one-third of the length of the entire Gettysburg Address.

"It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us--that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion--that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain--that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom--and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."

This concludes the third of the three paragraphs of the Gettysburg Address that tell a three-part story of American life and death.  First, there's birth--"our fathers brought fourth . . ."  Then, there's sacrificial death--"those who here gave their lives that that nation might live."  Finally, there's rebirth to eternal life--"a new birth of freedom," so that popular government "shall not perish from the earth."  (Doesn't this evoke the Christian story of Jesus?)

In this speech, Lincoln was speaking not only to Americans but also to all of Europe and Latin America, where people were watching to see whether the American model of democracy would indeed "perish from the earth."  Both the Union and the Confederacy had sent diplomats and special agents to Europe seeking support for their causes.  Lincoln and his Union agents had presented their cause--particularly with the promise of emancipation of slaves--as representing universal republican principles that were, as Lincoln said in 1862, "the last best, hope of earth" (2:415).  Charles Darwin was one of those British abolitionists who attentively followed the events of the Civil War in the newspapers, cheering when Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, and celebrating when Lee surrendered.

That the Civil War was indeed a crucial turning point in the geopolitical struggle between liberal republicanism and oligarchic authoritarianism is the argument of Don Doyle's book The Cause of All Nations: An International History of the American Civil War (2015).  I would say that the victory of the Union in the Civil War was a decisive turn in political evolution by cultural group selection that favored the Lockean liberalism of the Declaration of Independence.

Some of the proslavery Southerners understood this.  Before the war, George Fitzhugh had condemned the principle of equality in the Declaration of Independence as a statement of Locke's false teaching.  In 1866, Fitzhugh said that the conflict in the United States between the North and the South was a continuation of the debate in seventeenth-century England between Locke and Sir Robert Filmer.  The radical North was on the side of the Whigs and Locke.  The conservative South was on the side of the Tories and Filmer ("The Impending Fate of the Country," De Bow's Review 2 [1866]: 561-70).  The Union's victory in the Civil War was Locke's victory over Filmer.

Lincoln could see this as a vindication of what he had been saying for over ten years about how the American dedication to the Declaration of Independence had been tested in both war and peace.  In 1852, he had observed:  "On the fourth day of July, 1776, the people of a few feeble and oppressed colonies of Great Britain, inhabiting a portion of the Atlantic coast of North America, publicly declared their national independence, and made their appeal to the justice of their cause, and to the God of battles, for the maintenance of that declaration" (1:259).  This appeal to "the God of battles" is what Locke and the American revolutionaries called "the Appeal to Heaven."  Strangely, however, in both the American Revolution and the American Civil War, both of the opposing sides prayed to God for His help.

In fact, the Civil War became a theological crisis for America, because both proslavery and antislavery Americans looked to the Bible as supporting their position.  In the Second Inaugural Address, Lincoln sharply stated the problem: "Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other" (2:687).  But the Declaration of Independence confidently appeals to "the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God" in declaring that "all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights."

And yet the fact that the Declaration of Independence did not mandate the abolition of slavery across all of America could be cited by people like Stephen Douglas as evidence that the equality of rights proclaimed in the Declaration was the political equality of free white men in America and other free white men in Great Britain, and thus it was not understood as an equality of all men of all races.  Lincoln responded by arguing that the equality affirmed in the Declaration was really meant to be an equality of all men of all races, but it was a matter of practical necessity to compromise with slavery for a limited period of time, while working for its ultimate extinction--and in particular, the national Congress should prohibit the expansion of slavery into the new Western territories and states.

Lincoln agreed with Henry Clay that "all men are created equal" is a true statement about men in the "state of nature" before the establishment of government.  Clay had said: "If a state of nature existed, and we were about to lay the foundations of society, no man would be more strongly opposed than I should to incorporate the institution of slavery among its elements."  "Exactly so," Lincoln observed.  "In our new free territories, a state of nature does exist," and therefore, as Congress lays the foundations of a new society in those free territories, "it is desirable that the declaration of the equality of all men shall be kept in view," and the introduction of slavery into those territories should be prohibited (1:822-23). 

In his 1857 Speech on the Dred Scott Decision, Lincoln insisted that both Douglas and Chief Justice Roger Taney were denying "the plain unmistakable language of the Declaration.  He explained:

"I think the authors of that notable instrument intended to include all men, but they did not intend to declare all men equal in all respects.  They did not mean to say all were equal in color, size, intellect, moral developments, or social capacity.  They defined with tolerable distinctness, in which respects they did consider all men created equal--equal in 'certain inalienable rights, among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.'  This they said, and this they meant.  They did not mean to assert the obvious untruth, that all were then actually enjoying that equality, nor yet, that they were about to confer it immediately upon them.  In fact they had no power to confer such a boon.  They meant simply to declare the right, so that the enforcement of it might follow as fast as circumstances should permit.  They meant to set up a standard maxim for free society, which should be familiar to all, and revered by all; constantly looked to, 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" (1:398).

This is the Story of America as the Story of the Declaration of Independence:  equal liberty for all is the "standard maxim" for America that is "never perfectly attained" but "constantly approximated" across American history "as fast as circumstances should permit."  

As I have argued in previous posts, those who see evidence in some of his debates with Douglas that Lincoln was a white supremacist are mistaken.  He did say "that I am not, nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races,--that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people" (1:636).  But notice that he is silent about what he might say in the future.  And in fact, in 1865, he endorsed a free state constitution for Louisiana "giving the benefit of public schools equally to black and white, and empowering the Legislature to confer the elective franchise upon the colored man" (2:700).  

Moreover, I have argued, there are good reasons to believe that if Lincoln has been a modern Supreme Court Justice he would have supported the constitutional rights to racial intermarriage (in Loving v. Virginia) and same-sex marriage (in Obergefell v. Hodges); and he would have said that these decisions properly enforced the principle of equal liberty in the Declaration of Independence.

But was Lincoln right about the original meaning of the Declaration of Independence?  Maier argued that Stephen Douglas's interpretation of the Declaration was actually an accurate account of the original history of the Declaration; and what Lincoln presented was a mythical distortion of that history.  I will take that up in the next post.



Doyle, Don H. 2015. The Cause of All Nations: An International History of the American Civil War. New York: Basic Books.

Lincoln, Abraham. 1989. Speeches and Writings. 2 volumes. New York: Library of America.

Maier, Pauline. 1997. American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Maier, Pauline. 1999. "The Strange History of 'All Men Are Created Equal.'" Washington and Lee Law Review 56 (Summer): 873-888.

1 comment:

Barto of the Oratory said...

1. I read somewhere that the philosopher Leo Strauss wrote that the National Socialist philosophy (as promoted by philosophers such as Martin Heidegger and Carl Schmitt) was not defeated by academics in debating halls providing facts and arguments against the National Socialist philosophy.

2. Rather, Strauss seemed to think that, in order to accurately see and understand how the world of homo sapiens really operates (i.e., a realistic, scientific understanding of the world rather than an idealistic, philosophical worldview), it was very important to recognize that the National Socialist philosophy went into steep decline after 1945 only because the armies fighting for the National Socialist philosophy were soundly defeated by Soviet tanks and American bombers.

3. I love, admire, and respect Abraham Lincoln.

4. But Lincoln was an idealist who thought that the American Revolution was a philosophical event, and who thought that right philosophy could and would save the world.

5. Had Lincoln been born later, and had he been better educated in modern science (including biological, social, and psychological science), I propose that Lincoln would have massively revised his thinking on these matters.

6. Of course, I know that this blog has 1,001 articles that debunk the view that I've just expressed. Oh well. So it goes.