As the 18th century progressed into the 19th, a new generation of abolitionists would marry reverence for the Declaration with fiery contempt for the Constitution.
“The duty of every American is to give his sympathy and aid to the antislavery movement,” declared the Garrisonian abolitionist Wendell Phillips in 1847. “And the first duty of every citizen is to devote himself to the destruction of the Union and the Constitution, which have already shipwrecked the experiment of civil liberty.” It was out of the wreckage of the Union that the nation would see a “state which will unfold, in noble proportions, the principles of the Declaration of Independence, whose promises made us once the admiration of the world.”
Of course, Frederick Douglass famously wielded the Declaration of Independence as a freedom document in his denunciation of American hypocrisy over slavery. “Whether we turn to the declarations of the past, or to the professions of the present, the conduct of the nation seems equally hideous and revolting,” Douglass said in “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July.” “America is false to the past, false to the present and solemnly binds herself to be false to the future.”
In “Lincoln at Gettysburg,” Garry Wills observed that “Lincoln was able to achieve the loftiness, ideality and brevity of the Gettysburg Address because he had spent a good part of the 1850s repeatedly relating all the most sensitive issues of the day to the Declaration’s supreme principle. If all men are created equal, they cannot be property.”
This is true. Abraham Lincoln had been playing with the central ideas of the Declaration, as he understood them, for much of the previous decade. We see this when he challenged Stephen Douglas’s assertion that its signers meant “men of European birth and European descent, when they declared the equality of all men.”
But Lincoln was also not working in a vacuum. His use of the Declaration of Independence should be situated within the larger context of the antislavery Declaration, deployed by abolitionists and antislavery proponents, Black and white.
It’s no surprise that on Independence Day, most Americans look back to the founding fathers as they celebrate and articulate the nation’s ideals. The story of the changing meaning of the Declaration should be a reminder, however, that we had more than one founding — and far more than just one set of founders.