On Slavery and the Declaration of Independence

This year, many Americans celebrated Independence Day in the most American way possible: they got into arguments on social media. The catalyst was a Tweet by Christian rapper Lecrae who posted a photo depicting slaves on a southern plantation along with a caption that read, “My family on July 4, 1776.” The Twitterverse immediately sprang to life, with angry people incensed by the post doing digital battle, 140 characters at a time, with those who defended it.

Since Lecrae didn’t elaborate, it’s difficult to know exactly what his point was, but that didn’t stop people from hazarding guesses. Many, not without justification, interpreted it as another in a recent rash of Social Justice Warrior attacks on American history and culture. Whatever Lecrae’s intent, his message – that slavery still existed in the United States on July 4, 1776 – is both undeniably true and wholly lamentable. Slavery existed in the United States for over a century before the Declaration of Independence and would persist for another 90 years following it. This truth was not lost on the American colonists at the time, and one hopes that it is not surprising to modern Americans.

The truth of his message’s implication, however – that Independence Day is an event made less worthy of celebration by the fact of slavery – is considerably less obvious, based as it is on a pervasive misperception of what the Declaration of Independence sought to accomplish. Contrary to what Americans are taught from childhood – indeed, contrary to what we’re told every July 4th – the Declaration of Independence was not some grand, universally-embraced statement of individual liberty. In reality, it was more like a break-up letter sent by the colonists to the centralized power they could no longer justify giving their allegiance to.

Moderners tend to focus on the Declaration’s second paragraph, in which the colonists said they held certain truths to be self evident, “That all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” This is the basis for the interpretation of July 4th as “American Freedom Day.” And if the colonists had stopped there, there would be considerable justification for that view. But they didn’t. They went on,

“That, to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed; that whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles, and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.”

Here was the reason why the colonists expressed their theory of individual rights. It was because they understood government to exist solely for the protection of those rights and believed that when a government failed to protect rights, or actively attacked them, it betrayed its only purpose and the reason for its existence. In this scenario, it was the people’s right to reject that government and create a new one.

In other words, the colonists were explaining what they were about to do, and why. And what they were about to do was tell Great Britain to shove off. After listing 27 complaints against King George and the British Parliament, the Declaration came to its point:

“We, therefore, the representatives of the United States of America, in General Congress assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the name and by the authority of the good people of these colonies solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, FREE AND INDEPENDENT STATES; that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British crown and that all political connection between them and the state of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved.”

So, what’s the point? It’s simply this: the American colonists did not conceive of their task as immediately recreating American society into one in which everyone was free and equal. After the Declaration of Independence, many people were still not free. Many parts of American government were still aristocratic in nature, serving the interests of the upper classes. Religious freedom was still elusive for many religious minorities. And, yes, slavery still existed.

The Declaration’s statement about the rights of individuals, far from being a standalone concept, played a contextual role in the larger task of explaining why the colonists were separating from Great Britain. In short, their task was independence, not freedom. That is, their goal was to exercise their right to self-government, not to level society.

Which brings us back to Lecrae who, like most of his countrymen, doesn’t understand this. If he did, he wouldn’t make inflammatory comments criticizing the Declaration of Independence for not doing what it didn’t intend to do. But inflammatory comments are the inevitable result when people who don’t understand history try to score points by layering bad history on top of an already poorly-understood period. Lecrae and the people who supported his Independence Day message not only misunderstand the purpose of the Declaration of Independence, they misunderstand the history of American abolitionism.

Does Lecrae know that Thomas Jefferson, the penman of the Declaration of Independence, was instrumental in ending the slave trade in Virginia and introduced legislation to end slavery in that state? Does he know that Roger Sherman, a member of the committee that drafted the Declaration, was a man of deep religious convictions who staunchly opposed slavery? Does he know that the American War for Independence, which was a direct result of the Declaration, led to the ending of slavery in several northern states? Most importantly, does he understand that the classical liberal and Christian principles embodied in the Declaration of Independence were the same principles that fueled the abolitionist movement?

Maybe the best question is if any of this matters to Social Justice Warriors and their ahistorical opinions.

Ultimately, this entire controversy is over a misunderstanding of the history and purpose of the Declaration of Independence. It would have been wonderful if individual liberty could have been comprehensively attained and the 4,000 year old institution of slavery ended by merely signing a document. But that’s not the way human beings work. Change is slow and painstaking, and that is doubly true of the march of freedom.

There is no reason to condemn an episode in history that advanced human liberty just because it didn’t end every form of oppression all at once. It is ridiculous and short-sighted to throw an event of this magnitude out the window, simply because it did not immediately perfect society. Doing so is the equivalent of criticizing the Model-T for not having Bluetooth.

Liberty is a process, and the Declaration of Independence was an important step along that path – for all people.