Race and Liberty in America: The Essential Reader

By Jonathan Bean | Go to book overview

1
Antislavery
1776–1853

IN THE ERA OF ANTI SLAVERY, classical liberal voices for racial freedom drew upon the Constitution, Christianity, and belief in the right to self-ownership. The Declaration of Independence was also a touchstone of abolitionism quoted and discussed by James Forten, David Walker, Lysander Spooner, Frederick Douglass, and nearly every other antislavery writer in the tumultuous period leading up to the Civil War. Strong, often violent, opposition to antislavery activists led them to develop a coherent tradition that dominated the civil rights movement well into the twentieth century and still persists today. Although the author of the Declaration, Thomas Jefferson, was a slaveholder, that fact did not undermine the meaning and power of the natural rights theory set forth in that famous document, which mentions God four times as the source of those “unalienable Rights.” Throughout this period, classical liberal Christians found themselves fighting the proslavery interpretations of Christianity advanced by southerners. In response, classical liberals invoked the concept that “all men are… endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, [and] that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”


Declaration of Independence (1776)

Thomas Jefferson

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to as

-13-

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