In America’s revolutionary history, no document is more iconic than the Declaration of Independence, the short but sweeping statement issued by Congress on July 4, 1776, severing bonds with Britain and launching the Colonies on their path to independence.
But what does the Declaration of Independence actually declare? For most Americans today, the answer is embodied in the opening sentence of the second paragraph: “We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.”
Perhaps no sentence in American history is better known or has had a greater impact than these powerful words about equality and rights. It is no wonder then that schoolchildren memorize this sentence and that adults consider it the founding creed of America’s civil religion.
During the March on Washington in 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. recited those words and said it was time for the nation to make good on this “promissory note” and to rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed. One hundred years earlier, in his Gettysburg address, President Abraham Lincoln insisted that the nation had been founded upon the proposition that all men are created equal.
But in 1776, that’s not how most Americans would have seen the Declaration. Americans at the time rarely discussed these words, instead focusing on the long list of charges against King George III that dominated the body of the text, or the bold capital letters in the document’s final section, declaring the Colonies to be “FREE AND INDEPENDENT STATES.”
So why did we come to focus on the message that we did? How and when did Americans turn a diplomatic severance note into a declaration of individual rights and a philosophical statement about the natural equality of all people?
With the help of newly digitized 18th-century American newspapers and other publications, we can now more precisely trace how people wrote about the Declaration in its own time, and can begin to tell a more nuanced story about how—and who—gave us the Declaration Americans now celebrate.
While most observers at the time were focusing on other parts of the document, one set of people saw this sentence as its most important statement: opponents of slavery. Antislavery activists constituted a minority of the Declaration’s early readers. But years later, it would be their reading that helped transform an instrument of international law into a founding document of domestic politics.
In watching how early Americans read the Declaration, and what they paid attention to, we get a powerful lesson in how a seemingly clear founding document can shift meaning over time and even hold multiple meanings in its own time. We also see how a state paper designed to dissolve the political bands between Britain and its Colonies slowly and surprisingly came to be recognized as a distinctly American contribution to political systems around the world.
Eric Slauter directs the Karla Scherer Center, a hub for the multidisciplinary study of American culture at the University of Chicago. He also runs the Scherer Center’s Multidisciplinary Seminar, a course designed for graduate students in the Humanities, the Social Sciences, the Divinity School, and the Law School that features lectures, readings, and visits by Americanist faculty from across the University. He specializes in early American cultural, intellectual, and literary history, with additional research and teaching interests in a range of fields and methods: legal history; the history of political thought; book history; visual and material culture studies; quantitative analysis; the history of slavery, abolition, and emancipation; labor history; environmental history; and Atlantic history.
His scholarship focuses chiefly on transformations in political thought and behavior in the eighteenth century. His first book, The State as a Work of Art: The Cultural Origins of the Constitution, examined the relation of culture to politics in revolutionary America with a special interest in how the emergent state was challenged in its effort to sustain inalienable natural rights alongside slavery and to achieve political secularization at a moment of growing religious expression.
(Lectures in China by Eric Slauter were sponsored by the American Culture Exchange Center, a joint project between the University of Chicago and Shandong University. This series was funded, in part, by the American Center for Educational Exchange.)