The Declaration of Independence: Celebrating and Redeeming its Solemn Promises

The Declaration of Independence, which Abraham Lincoln referred to as the “sheet anchor of the Republic,” set forth the proposition, as he said in the Gettysburg Address, that “the United States was conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” The principle of equality, Lincoln admitted, was “aspirational.” Its implementation would await the arrival of America’s maturity, that moment when the societal, cultural and political forces would accept the legalization of racial equality. There was no invisible hand that would push the nation across the finish line. As with all great changes in a democracy, leadership was required.

The leadership of congressional Republicans, known and admired as the Radical Republicans, who envisioned, drafted and secured the ratification of the Reconstruction Amendments—the 13th, 14th and 15th—completed the principles set forth in the Declaration of Independence and made them part of the Constitution. The 13th Amendment abolished slavery, the 14th guaranteed equal protection of the law, and the 15th granted voting rights to former slaves. What Republicans undertook represented a constitutional revolution, for they changed the legal landscape, the nature and face of America. What lay behind this historic achievement, compelling then, as it is now, was the fact that they interpreted the Constitution in light of the Declaration. They embraced the principle that all men are created equal and believed that slaves and free Blacks were men endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, including life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Republicans acknowledged that the Constitution, as it was written in 1787, recognized slavery, which delayed the implementation of the goals, values and principles of the Declaration of Independence. They were, as Lincoln said, “aspirational.” The 13th Amendment, as debates in the 39th Congress demonstrated, represented the first, crucial step in “completing” the Constitution, so that it would reflect the egalitarian and animating principles in the Declaration. It extended the right of personal liberty to the newly freedman, which was a function of the principle of equality. The higher, broader purpose was to constitutionalize the Declaration and remove the moral stain from the nation’s escutcheon. It remade the Republic in the image of our founding charter. In the course of debates on the 13th Amendment, the great abolitionist, Sen. Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, eloquently stated: “It is only necessary to carry the Republic back to its baptismal vows, and the declared sentiments of its origins. There is the Declaration of Independence: let its solemn promises be redeemed. There is the Constitution: let it speak, according to the promise of the Declaration.”

Sen. Sumner’s appeal to the “promise of the Declaration” was echoed by his colleagues throughout the debates. Members invoked the Declaration and the opportunity for the nation to atone for its departure from its principles necessitated, they believed, by the dictates of slavery as a compromise to save the Union. Abolition, it was argued, would suffuse the Constitution with the long delayed fundamental principles of the Declaration: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

For Republicans, the Reconstruction Amendments were seen as a means of removing the exceptions to liberty and equality that were implied, and inflicted, by the slavery provisions in the Constitution. They would restore, moreover, the crucial concept of consent of the governed, which the authors of the Declaration of Independence understood to be the only source of governmental legitimacy. Government by consent of the people, which was grounded on the principle of equality, the foundational premise and promise of the Declaration of Independence, had been eviscerated by slavery. In sum, the Reconstruction Amendments would complete the Constitution by squaring it with the Declaration.

As Americans celebrate the Declaration of Independence in the finest ways—parades, food, fireworks and music—we ought to pause in this time of great political divide and turmoil, and recall what united us, in the beginning. We might focus on the great egalitarian principles set forth in our founding charter and view them, as we should, as the nation’s North Star, worthy then of our devotion, and worthy still. Let us listen to the voice of Charles Sumner and reflect on our “baptismal vows.”

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