Academic journal article Washington and Lee Law Review

The Strange History of "All Men Are Created Equal"

Academic journal article Washington and Lee Law Review

The Strange History of "All Men Are Created Equal"

Article excerpt

It is not altogether surprising, I think, that authors learn a great deal while writing a book. Who has enough information at the top of his or her mind to fill hundreds of pages? Instead we figure out much of what we say as we go along - and then rewrite, and rewrite, and rewrite to make our manuscripts sound as if we knew what we were doing from the beginning.

It is, however, remarkable - at least to me - how much an author can learn by publishing a book, particularly a book like American Scripture,' which was widely reviewed and brought invitations to appear on talk shows, in book series at museums, and at other events where members of "the educated public" have an opportunity to express their thoughts. What I learned is of some relevance here. It concerns the ways Americans think about the nation's revolutionary origins and, more exactly, the Declaration of Independence and also the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, which are the most enduring statements of the Revolution's heritage.

What exactly did I learn? For one thing, I learned how much Thomas Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence have become inseparable. I should have expected, I suppose, people to describe my book on the Declaration of Independence as my "Jefferson book" even though it does not focus on Jefferson and, indeed, downplays his role in the creation of the Declaration. But why do so many knowledgeable, intelligent people repeatedly speak of my "book on the Constitution"? If I corrected them, which I no longer do, and said that the book was in fact about the Declaration of Independence, they often would wave their hands as if to say "don't bother me with academic distinctions. The Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the Declaration of Independence - they're basically all the same thing." At first, however, those documents were not at all "basically the same thing." How, then, did they come to seem that way?

There is, however, at least one regard in which people think differently about the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. Most Americans are aware that interpretations of the Constitution have changed over time, perhaps because Supreme Court decisions are so often in the news. However, they often do not extend that insight to the Declaration, which doesn't seem to have changed at all since 1776. The men who wrote and signed the document understood it, people assume, exactly as we do. And another tendentious academic's suggestion that, in fact, the Declaration has a history is about as welcome to some Americans as Darwinism was to fundamentalist Christians a century ago..

Occasional reviews in newspapers insisted, for example, that the members of the Second Continental Congress knew exactly what power the Declaration would have for future generations. No need to sift the evidence for or against that view; the argument was based on pure faith. Then there was the woman at Boston's Kennedy Library who asked, with obvious irritation, "Do you really mean to say the Declaration wasn't-inspiring in 1776?"

This view is not confined to "ordinary people." Paul Johnson stated it in his History ofthe American People.' In adopting the Declaration of Independence, Johnson asserted, members of the Second Continental Congress "wanted to give the future citizens of America a classic statement of what their country was about, so that their children and their children's children could study it and learn it by heart."3 And, in the most critical scholarly review that American Scripture received, a professor of political science at Notre Dame University went so far as to misquote an eighteenth-century source in an impassioned effort to show that the Declaration of Independence "was always taken to be a guide for 'an established society. "4 Among such people one can witness the "original understanding" doctrine in a pure and uncompromised form, "original understanding" with a vengeance.

The "understanding" to which they are so committed is not, to be sure, stated throughout the Declaration of Independence. …

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