History Professor Robert Allison recently contributed his “fresh take” on the Declaration of Independence as part of a Harvard University Declaration Resources Project collaboration. Allison explained why the United States’ founding document is as relevant now as it was in 1776:
Q. In your analysis for the “fresh takes” project, you wrote “That the British government—the world’s freest in 1776—acted tyrannically, was the declaration’s most somber warning.” Do you feel that warning has particular resonance in today’s political climate?
A. This always has resonance. A recent American president warned that we are never more than one generation removed from tyranny—and a 20th-century Supreme Court justice warned that we are alert to danger from people of bad intent, but we need to be more on guard against government overreach when its intentions are good.
Thomas Jefferson pointed out that free government is founded not in confidence, but jealousy. Governments will always want to extend their powers, but we must be mindful that power can be used for good or ill purposes.
Q. What was the most important thing the Founding Fathers did to safeguard people’s rights?
A. The founders wisely separated functioning powers—allowing, as James Madison said, ambition to check ambition. The federal government, the state governments, also maintained their checks on each other. The Massachusetts Constitution of 1780, primarily the work of John Adams, separated executive, legislative, and judicial powers—forbidding any of these from exercising the powers of the other two—so that this would be a "government of laws and not of men."
Creating a political system that would be strong enough to protect the body politic, but checked from invading the liberties of individual citizens, was one of the most remarkable achievements of any age.
Q. Is there any portion of the Declaration of Independence that is widely misinterpreted or misapplied?
A. We often look to the soaring rhetoric of the second paragraph—that all men are created equal, and are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights—as path-breaking and revolutionary, which in a sense they are. But these also are "self-evident." The author with this statement was not trying to create something new, but simply create a standard with which all would agree.
The more important misconception is that the authors meant by "all men" simply some men. Leaving aside the gender issue—why doesn't it say "men and women" (because to the 18th century, "men" meaning humankind was not gender-specific, encompassing both genders)—how could men who wrote "all men are created equal" still own other men? Did the founders think of black men and women as endowed with inalienable rights? Or did "all men" mean "all white men?"
At the same time Congress was debating the declaration, Virginia's state convention was drafting a constitution, which began with a declaration of rights asserting that "All men are free and equal and have certain natural, essential, and inalienable rights of which they cannot be divested." The convention realized this posed a problem—since 40 percent of Virginia's population actually was enslaved. So they amended it—men could not be divested of these rights "when they enter into a state of society." This created a fiction that the enslaved people in Virginia at some point had divested themselves of these rights.
In Massachusetts, the constitution also asserts in the first article of its declaration of rights that all men are free and equal and have certain natural and essential rights. In the early 1780s, two people—Elizabeth Freeman of Berkshire County, and Quock Walker of Worcester County—brought suit in state court, since the Massachusetts Constitution said they were born free and equal, but they were also held as slaves by owners claiming them as property.
If the phrase "all men are created equal" meant simply all white men, and if in the case of Ms. Freeman it meant all males, the issue would be relatively simple. The court would have said, "This doesn't mean you." But the court in each case said, “this does mean you.” The fundamental law of Massachusetts—the same phrase we see in the declaration—does in fact mean all men and women are created equal.
Slavery ended in Massachusetts because of this phrase.
Q. Which key section or phrase would you highlight for anyone reading (or re-reading) the declaration this July 4?
A. Highlight the self-evident truths—that all men are created equal, endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights—and the purpose of government, to secure these rights. And of course the idea that the signers are mutually pledging their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor to establish independence.
Q. How will you be celebrating this Independence Day?
A. I will be giving out copies of the Declaration of Independence in Provincetown's July 4 parade.