The Declaration and the Confederacy

Despite all Carl’s talk about the various forms of American liberty (and I really appreciate his unwillingness to reduce them to one form), nothing has been said around here about the Declaration of Independence. Our friend Paul Seaton has some eloquent words about our Founders’ dramatic and confident rational assertiveness–or manliness. You will be thoughtfully invigorated if you read them.

And even the not-so-liberty-loving New York Times has chimed in with Steven Smith’s interesting review of Danielle Allen’s lovingly meticulous new book on every word of the Declaration. I will limit myself for now to one comment, but more will come.

Smith does well to call attention to what the leading theorist of the Confederacy, Vice-President Alexander Stephens of Georgia, said about the Declaration in his “Corner Stone” Speech. According to Stephens, the Declaration is evidence that our leading Founders such as Jefferson were convinced they knew that race-based slavery was wrong morally and politically. It is also one piece of evidence among many that they really didn’t know what to do about it, except to hope it would fade away in a free country dedicated to the inalienable rights of all men (meaning all members of our species).

Stephens added that the theory of the CSA must be that the Declaration was wrong; it was based on 18th-century science. The 19th-century progress of science (empirically rooted, Stephens contended, in the failure of members of the black race to achieve enlightened self-government anywhere) had led to the conclusion that the races are unequal by nature. The Confederacy is based, Stephens asserted, on the emerging self-evidence of the truth that it’s nature’s intention that one race govern the other.

Stephens’ words are typically presented as those of a moral monster. Well, it’s true enough that there is little in human experience more monstrous than the spiritualized despotism of race-based slavery. But Stephens is exactly right on the theory of the Declaration and our Founding, and on the inability of our Founders to develop adequately practice that corresponded to their theory. In Jefferson’s case especially, his anti-slavery words were contradicted by his deeds, most egregiously perhaps in his decision not to recognize Haiti and in his development of industrial slavery (a nail factory) on his plantation.

Not only that, if the Confederacy had a theory of nature and human nature that justified its affirmation of the permanence of slavery in its Constitution (there is, of course, no such affirmation and, in fact, no racism at all in the Constitution of 1787), it would have to have been the one Stephens laid out. His call, if you think about it, was for the whites of the South to take  proper responsibility for those in their charge as natural dependents. Slavery is unjust, Stephens made clear, if it isn’t really for the benefit of the “Negro.”

I certainly agree with those who understand that  Stephens’ speech should inspire extreme suspicion for every political claim based on alleged progress beyond the light of science at the foundation of Jefferson’s universal or cosmopolitan teaching of natural rights. The Declaration’s self-evident teaching should be understood to be a scientific or philosophic affirmation of the Christian insight into the equally unique irreplaceability of every human person. That teaching about irreducible personal identity is the part of the science of John Locke that actually contradicted the science of classical political philosophy. Locke’s science also contradicts most versions of neo-Darwinian theory.

But here’s Smith’s erroneous gloss on the Stephens’ speech: “It is one of the delicious ironies of intellectual history that those who claim Jefferson could not possibly have included African-Americans in his assertion of human equality are unwittingly reporting the canards of Confederate propaganda.” Insofar as the “Corner Stone” Speech is Confederate propaganda, it claims exactly the opposite.

The claim about the Declaration’s racism is actually antebellum. Southern, pro-slavery propaganda. Its high point was Taney’s opinion for the Court in Dred Scott, where he says that the words of the Declaration clearly do not include the “Negroes” brought over from Africa to be slaves. Taney’s strongest argument is that our Founders were obviously great men with personal integrity, and we can’t interpret their words in a way that contradicts their deeds. The weakest part of his argument is that he ignores the rather obviously anti-slavery, anti-racist words of the Constitution of 1787, which, as Lincoln said, was carefully written to tolerate an unjust institution only as a matter of necessity in the states where it already existed. The Constitution’s words, of course, are also deeds.

Stephens asserted, in effect, that Taney, Calhoun, and so forth were lying. Their talk was propaganda, but the new nation need not–could not if it is to be worthy of virtuous men–be based on a lie. The unscientifically anti-racist theory of the Declaration and the Constitution of 1787 could now be repudiated.

The theory of the CSA–that one race was born to rule the other–died as a matter of American law with the result of the Civil War and the “done deal” that was the Thirteenth Amendment. Americans no longer seriously dispute the self-evidence of the Declaration’s proposition that all men and women are created equal, and most of our arguments are over the practical implications of that theoretical assertion.


Peter Augustine Lawler — Peter Augustine Lawler is Dana Professor of Government at Berry College. He is executive editor of the acclaimed scholarly quarterly Perspectives on Political Science and served on President George ...