Opinion: Arguments over nation’s founding continue to this day

The idea that the Declaration of Independence was only for white land-owning males was started by the supporters of slavery, and is not true, the writer says.

The idea that the Declaration of Independence was only for white land-owning males was started by the supporters of slavery, and is not true, the writer says.

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Regarding “We Can’t Erase Racism from History Books” by Alma Rutgers (May 15):

Alma Rutgers states Kimberly Fiorello said that slavery was ended by the Gettysburg Address. If Ms. Fiorello said that, she clearly doesn’t know what she’s talking about.

However, in her essay, Alma Rutgers also has some major errors of her own.

She talks of what she calls “the truth that our founders meant only white male landowners in their reference to all men as equal.” She’ll be pleased to know that if she went back to pre-Civil War America in 1860 and said that, the slave-owners would welcome her with open arms, because what she was saying would mean she was on their side.

That view of the Declaration of Independence was created by slave-holders in the 1850s to be used as a defense, as the rest of America was becoming more and more anti-slavery. This became a central issue in the Lincoln-Douglas debates in 1858, and can be illustrated by quoting from them.

Douglas took the position of the declaration only applying to white males in hopes of getting support from pro-slavery forces. Lincoln criticized that.

As he pointed out, slavery existed at the time of the founders, and there was no way of winning the Revolutionary War or, later, of forming the world’s first real attempt at a democratic government, without the participation of the slave-owners. But the founders believed that slavery was already “in course of ultimate extinction.” (Slavery at the time was becoming less and less profitable, and they couldn’t know that the future invention of the cotton gin would make it viable again). Lincoln said that slavery was “a vast moral evil,” and it could be shown “by the writings of those who gave us the blessings of liberty ... that they so looked upon it.”

The founders “defined ... in what respect they did consider all men created equal — equal with certain inalienable rights, among which are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. This they said and this they meant. They did not mean to assert the obvious untruth that all were then equally enjoying that equality, nor yet that they were about to confer it immediately upon them. In fact, they had no power to confer such a boon. They meant simply to declare the right so that the enforcement of it might follow as fast as the circumstances should permit. They meant to set up a standard maxim for free men which should be familiar to all and revered by all, constantly looked to and constantly labored for ... and thereby constantly spreading and deepening its influence and augmenting the happiness and value of life to all people of all colors everywhere.” The declaration was a declaration of the natural rights of all, and the goal for which they were fighting.

As for the claim that the founders believed the declaration only applied to white males, and that this was America’s view of it all along, Lincoln challenged Douglas: “I believe the entire records of the world, from the date of the Declaration of Independence up to within three years ago, may be searched in vain for one single affirmation, from one single man, that the negro was not included in the Declaration of Independence.”

Lincoln, of course, did not have the internet, and I suppose it’s possible that such a comment might be found today. But would Lincoln have made that challenge if the slave-owner’s view — and Alma Rutgers’ — had had any real support in the years before 1855? Could he have made that challenge?

The idea that the Declaration of Independence was meant by its signers to apply only to white land-owning males was started by the supporters of slavery over 70 years after the declaration was written, and is not true.

To cover briefly one other matter: Rutgers also says that the 3/5 compromise in the Constitution “gave slave states more Congressional seats and electoral votes.” When the Constitution was first being written and argued and fought over, the South wanted all of its slaves to be counted as individuals to give them more power. The 3/5 compromise was not an attempt to increase the slaver’s power but to decrease it from what they wanted.

Greg Darak lives in Trumbull.