Obama soon makes clear that despite their fine words, Jefferson and the other Founders were less than faithful to the idealistic inferences of the liberalism and republicanism they proclaimed. Like a good law-school professor, in The Audacity of Hope Obama lines up evidence and argument on both sides before concluding that, in fact, the Founders probably did not understand their principles as natural and universal, despite their soaring language, but rather as confined to the 18th-century ruling class — that is, to the white race.
The Declaration of Independence “may have been,” he writes artfully, a transformative moment in world history, a great breakthrough for freedom, but “that spirit of liberty didn’t extend, in the minds of the Founders, to the slaves who worked their fields, made their beds, and nursed their children.” As a result, the Constitution “provided no protection to those outside the constitutional circle,” to those who were not “deemed members of America’s political community”: “the Native American whose treaties proved worthless before the court of the conqueror, or the black man Dred Scott, who would walk into the Supreme Court a free man and leave a slave.” Obama doesn’t argue, as Lincoln did, that the Supreme Court majority was in error, that Dred Scott was wrongly and unjustly returned to slavery, and that Chief Justice Roger Taney’s dictum — that in the Founders’ view the black man had no rights that the white man was bound to respect — was a profound mistake. On the contrary, Obama accepts Dred Scott as rightly decided according to the standards of the time. He agrees, in effect, with Taney’s reading of the Declaration and the Constitution, and with Stephen Douglas’s as well. Despite his well-advertised admiration for Lincoln, Obama sides with Lincoln’s opponents in their pro-slavery interpretation of Jefferson and the Declaration.