Antislavery: The Crusade for Freedom in America

By Dwight Lowell Dumond | Go to book overview

Chapter 3
IMPACT OF THE REVOLUTION

The American Revolution is one of the great events in man's long struggle to be free. It has many facets. For instance, one may look at the developing system of liberal ideas in England and America in the eighteenth century with their concepts of a fundamental law, the social compact, and the natural rights of man, or at the manner in which the English colonies in the same period became a haven of refuge for all who sought freedom -- English Puritans, Dutch Reformers, Scotch Presbyterians, German Lutherans, French Huguenots, Quakers, Anglicans, Jews -- or at the leveling processes of frontier life which made these divers groups one people, strongly individualistic but strongly democratic in the broadest sense of the term, or at the principles immortalized in those two incomparable charters of Western liberalism -- the Declaration of Independence, and the Virginia Declaration of Rights -- or at the manner in which the Revolution here implemented and inspired the revolutions in France and in Latin America.

Everyone is familiar with the far-reaching domestic reforms initiated by the Revolution: breaking up landed estates and abolition of quitrents, revision of cruel criminal codes, separation of state and church, abolition of primogeniture and entail and of imprisonment for debt, ultimate adoption of universal manhood suffrage, equal division of estates, bankruptcy laws, and free public schools. In fact, most of the inequalities, class distinctions, and injustices based upon the idea of biological inequality were abolished outright before the Revolution had run its course. How, then, did slavery, most monstrous of all evil institutions, survive? The melancholy answer is, exactly the way it survived the impact of Christianity! Local communities made a mockery of the natural rights philosophy just as they had of the social teachings of Jesus.

The Declaration of Independence was a statement of principles upon which this nation was established. It states the case for freedom with the utmost clarity. We glean from it and from the many other documents and speeches and writings of the founding fathers, certain basic ideas. Among them are four which are singularly pertinent to the question of slavery: Natural law is unchangeable and everlasting, and the natural rights of man are above the power of government to destroy or deny. All men are equal in their natural endowment of rights. Governments derive their authority from the people, and their primary purpose is to make these natural rights of men more secure, and to protect the individual in their enjoyment. All citizens, therefore, are entitled to equality under the law and in the administration of justice. A great jurist could have started with these principles and abolished slavery. John Marshall started with less in some of his greatest decisions, but John Marshall was more interested in property rights than in human rights, and, instead of building a case for freedom based on the natural rights of man, in his declining years he prevented the adoption of universal manhood suffrage and emancipation of the slaves

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