From the beginning, starting with the Declaration of Independence, there are those ringing words: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal ...” That certainly wasn’t the truth. If those “truths” were so self-evident, then why is it that no country in history had deemed its people to be born equal? Not even the signers of the Declaration thought that it was self-evident. Despite their aspirational rhetoric, half of the signers of the Declaration held or had held slaves.
In the interest of compromise, and to have the Southern states join in the union, slavery was enshrined in our Constitution — but that same Constitution provided for the end of the slave trade in 1808. As Abraham Lincoln later observed, our Founding Fathers placed that provision in our Constitution “to remove the evil of slavery by cutting off its source.” Unfortunately, 1808 came and went and slavery remained. At or about the time our Congress was passing the Bill of Rights, it was also passing the first Alien Naturalization Act limiting naturalization to “free white persons.” The first “illegal immigrants” were the 50,000 slaves smuggled into the United States after Congress’ prohibition of the slave trade. It took the Civil War and an amended Constitution to grant them “amnesty.”
Just before the Civil War, the nation erected a statue to “Freedom.” It was to be placed atop the dome of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. In his original design, the sculpture Thomas Crawford designed a graceful female figure wearing a “liberty cap,” a symbol of freed slaves, encircled with stars. The liberty cap symbol enraged then-Secretary of War Jefferson Davis, who was in charge of the construction of the statuary. Davis forced the substitution of a version of a Roman helmet “with a bold arrangement of feathers” instead of the liberty cap. Getting rid of the “liberty cap” from a symbol of freedom was another reminder that the equality of all men and women was not “self-evident.”
While the Statue of Freedom was being erected, Abraham Lincoln was running for the U.S. Senate. During a debate, he spoke of the aspirations expressed in the Declaration of Independence and remarked about the seeming contradiction of slaveholders writing about the self-evidence of “all men being created equal.”
He spoke of the Constitution’s outlawing of the slave trade after 1808 and the hopes expressed by Alexander Hamilton and other of our Founding Fathers that slavery would soon be eliminated — that the need to compromise principles would ultimately be abandoned in the cause of freedom.
Although Lincoln lost that Senate race, he came to reiterate the “self-evident” aspirations of our founders.
“Wise statesmen as they were, they knew the tendency of prosperity to breed tyrants, and so they (Our founders) established these great self-evident truths, that when in the distant future some man, some faction, some interest, should set up the doctrine that none but rich men, or none but white men, were entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, their posterity might look up again to the Declaration of Independence and take courage to renew the battle which their fathers began — so that truth, and justice, and mercy, and all the humane and Christian virtues might not be extinguished from the land; so that no man would hereafter dare to limit and circumscribe the great principles on which the temple of liberty was being built.”
That should be the prayer of all Americans in these days of strife. French diplomat Alexis de Tocqueville, commenting on our democracy more than 180 years ago said: “The greatness of America lies not in being more enlightened than any other nation, but rather in her ability to repair her faults.”
Let’s hope that we can.
Sol Wachtler, a former chief judge of New York State, is distinguished adjunct professor at Touro Law School.