Reading Our Declaration in Support of Black Radicalism

by Chris Lebron on June 16, 2015

§1. The Declaration of Independence is a living document; and our every reading provides it the breath of life. Danielle Allen suggests as much when she writes: “We are all part of the ‘world’ to which the Declaration submits its facts. With every fresh reading, the Declaration calls out again for our judgment.” (89). This makes the Declaration a wily document of sorts. It purports to establish something politically important about the necessity of securing political independence from the British crown (and we’ll get to what that something seems to be in a moment), thus to regulate the affairs of men and women. And Yet. The Declaration seems to rely upon our engagement for it to have significant meaning: “The Declaration has expectations of its readers. A reader of the Declaration must be a judge….The Declaration assumes that its readers are […] equipped with moral sense. In calling out to its readers as members of the candid world, the Declaration identifies its audience as consisting of the kind of living organisms that can connect facts with principles in order to make judgments.” (90-1). It co-opts the judgment of readers to substantiate its democratic aims, thus implicates us in the quest for independence and equality from tyranny by asserting in its first line that as a people, the colonists were right to claim for themselves “the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them”.

In what follows, I use Allen’s engagement with the Declaration and the history of its development to explore a question that is made especially vivid by way of Allen’s engagement – does the Declaration support a case for black radicalism in the United States? I like this question because it is provocative; I prefer to ask it, though, not for its provocative nature but for its philosophical value. Too often, the documents that helped establish this nation are seized by political conservatives to hold in place a view of the founding as those halcyon days we continuously risk forsaking. In the hands of liberals, they are impotently used to hold the line of moderation rather than left leaning politics. But this is a remarkably ironic state of affairs. The founders were radicals of their time. In this seminar I want to remain more true to their spirit, as supported by Allen’s reading, than either conservatives or liberals seem willing to do, and, I want to use racial inequality as the point of entry. Here is my argument: the true spirit of the Declaration can supports a radical black politics that coherently calls into question the present legitimacy of the United States government.

§2. Below, by ‘[a] radical’ (and its cognates) I shall mean, political radical. And by political radical I mean the following, uncontroversially, I think: a person or group using strong non-conventional and unsanctioned means to effect drastic political change, either to disrupt the current status quo or to reinstate a preferred previous status quo. While it may be factually true that radicals (claim to) operate in the name of justice, that is not yet relevant for a definition of radical. Rather, the professed reasons for radicals’ viewpoints have to do with whether their radicalism is justified, just as the reasons for particular strategies and actions have to do with whether those strategies and actions are justified.

My position is that the founders were radicals. I don’t think this position is especially contentious. If one finds it so, that will have more to do with the way we take our present-day political union for granted, thus framing them as patriots, without fully appreciating that a group of men led the way to war and bloodshed to break from Britain, quite in defiance of Britain’s commands, thus acting quite unpatriotically. That is, they used strong unsanctioned means to effect drastic political change to disrupt the status quo. To my mind, the more important observation has to do with the justification they offered. Though a significant portion of the Declaration is dedicated to listing grievances, these are not the reasons for the founders’ radicalism. Rather, they are what we might call data points substantiating or confirming the reasons. Allen is right to offer us such a close reading of the first sentence of the Declaration because it provides the most important reasons for its radical nature. I will reproduce it here to then recapture Allen’s analysis in support of my thesis that the Declaration offers support for present day radicalism, especially black radicalism.

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 assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes with impel them to their separation.


So what are these reasons? On Allen’s analysis, there are four:

  1. pragmatic judgment: Allen’s analysis of the Declaration’s initial sentence is a stunning example of exegetical sleuthing and interpretation and it begins with the first seven words, and with “course” in particular. Allen writes: “Since ‘course’ is just another word for ‘river,’ and image of a waterway lies behind this sentence.” (110) This interpretation is crucial not just because it sets the tone for the general argument of both the book and the Declaration but because it imbues its writers with a kind of elevated vision – “[The colonists] were taking responsibility for observing the currents within human action that pull toward destinations[.]” (114) Here, the writers are taking a distinct pragmatic stance calling for as clear-headed an assessment not only of current conditions in the colonies but their cause, and more important, where they were likely to lead, or else there would be no cause for desiring to change course.
  2. necessity or being impelled: As distinct from being propelled or expelled, Allen rightly notes that to be impelled is distinct in that one is being pushed toward rather than being pushed forward or out, respectively. Why does this matter? It follows closely on the role of pragmatic judgment. If one intelligently observes the course of human events and, moreover, wishes to change them, then one comprehends motivations for taking action as well as perceiving a narrow range of appropriate actions and their possible outcomes.
  3. peoplehood: Judgment applies typically to a fairly unified entity – typically persons but also corporations and other groups. The most amorphous and elusive of entities in political theory is the national collectivity we often call ‘a people’. The writers referred to the colonists this way and Allen holds, following the social contract tradition that a people was “simply a group with shared political institutions.” (117). While simple, this definition holds something important in it – the notion that a collectivity could come to identify with shared institutions and by way of that identification consider themselves bound (in some relevant sense) to all others who similarly identified.
  4. equality: While Allen offers a more nuanced typology of the equality embodied by the Declaration and its writing process later in the book, she restricts herself to the equality indicated by the phrase “separate and equal” in the Declaration’s opening sentence, and here, equality on her reading has to do with equality of status or power as indexed to respect. As she puts it, “Here in the very first sentence of the Declaration the colonists lay claim to a station on the world’s stage equal to Britain’s. This they do not by pulling Britain down but by pulling themselves up. They want respect.” (119)
  5. Taken together, in the form of philosophical reason-giving the first sentence reads as follows: As a collectivity with shared institutions and who have noted the manner and nature of your actions toward us, we feel momentously justified in pursuing respect in the manner consistent with our peoplehood and contrary to the nature of your actions.

    §3. There has been no shortage of commentary on what can only be described as deep hypocrisy in America’s being founded on the ideal of equality and liberty at the same exact time it engaged in and prospered from black slavery. It is to the point, also, to note what all observant and thinking people today identify as systemic or institutional racial inequality. This conception of inequality holds that merely being a person who can be identified as racially black significantly increases one’s chances of bearing a disproportionate share of society’s burdens while significantly decreasing one’s chances of benefitting from society’s goods. This is a technical and mild way of saying that if you are black in America today, you are at greater risk for receiving a substandard education, substandard healthcare, being incarcerated or mortally endangered by law enforcement agencies, getting paid less money for the same job, holding less wealth and, generally, receiving much less respect that you are owed. And that’s the short list.

    But consider this for a moment. There are more than four hundred years between the establishment of Virginia as a colony and today and more than two hundred years between American independence and today. Yet, in many important respects, very little racial progress has been made – blacks are still given every reason to believe they are second-class citizens, when they have reason to believe they are considered citizens at all. Poignantly, some of our more important contemporary writings would have you believe that American history not only refuses to fully and unconditionally release blacks from bondage but that it also repeats itself, such as when Michelle Alexander describes the present state of the American carceral system as ‘the new Jim Crow’ – Jim Crow being the late 19th and 20th century social and political norms that explicitly segregated and abused blacks in the wake of the Emancipation Proclamation which freed the slaves.

    I just above said that black Americans are given every reason to believe they are second-class citizens and we have already seen that reasons count for a lot with respect to political judgment. Political judgment is always especially tuned into the relationship between institutional arrangements, the attitudes and actions of political elites, and one’s sense of one’s standing – or station – in the polity. Any reasonable black person’s political judgment given the fact of systemic racial inequality should be that neither the state nor polity is showing them any respect. Moreover, pragmatically, this has definitely seemed to be the course of events. Just like the colonist’s historical river, blacks have seen the flow of racism and white supremacy and despite both of those going (partially) into abeyance as explicit social doctrines, their implications continue to produce startlingly similar effects on blacks’ lives. Further, it goes without saying that this state of affairs deeply violates any conception of equality. It is especially important that we conceive the Civil Rights Movement in the 20th century as an attempt to secure equality of station or standing – as an attempt for blacks to pull themselves up to the level of whites, in contrast to pulling whites down.

    So, with respect to comparing the situation of racial inequality to that of the writers of the Declaration and the colonists, we have the shared desire for equal respect and being impelled by the course of events. Only the idea of peoplehood has gone untreated and it turns out to be crucial for my thesis. Allen follows social contract theorists in holding that a people is defined by its members identifying with shared institutions. With respect to the colonists and the British, this makes some sense since they were separated geographically. The colonists, despite being under the rule of the British had come to develop something like an American way of life and were pledging to do so more drastically by way of the Declaration, then subsequently, the Constitution. The case with respect to blacks in America is more fraught. Blacks currently share the same space with other Americans, and, today are formally citizens. So in one respect they share peoplehood with whites and other groups. But consider this for a moment. A sub-group in America shares peoplehood with the rest of the policy by way of institutions but it is precisely because of those institutions (remember, institutional racism) that blacks can coherently claim that they are treated as second-class citizens. I want to conclude, then, by affirming my thesis. This tension between being formally a part of the people but in fact, not fully part of the people, of having one’s membership brought into substantive question by way of deep injustice on the part of American institutions gives blacks due cause to claim that American institutions and government are illegitimate for they are systematically violating the very thing they were established to do – treat American citizens as such with all the benefits and protections that entails. And, precisely because blacks today share the same sorts of justification for complaint as the Declaration’s writers did at the founding, they, like the founders, are justified in pursuing a radical politics.

    This is not the proper space to give an account of what black radical politics would look like. Nor is there enough space to do so in any case. But I can offer some remarks. First, radical politics is quite frequently understood to necessarily be violent or threatening. However, a clear-headed view of the definition of ‘radical’ that I offered earlier tells against that. Surely, violent politics can be radical. So can a politics steeped deeply in the ethics of love and brotherhood. That language and pairing of ideas, though given lip service in certain kinds of organizations has never been deeply mainstream to American politics. That would qualify it as radical in important respects. And love could certainly motivate political actions that are unsanctioned – Martin Luther King, Jr. already proved this point for us by the reasoning he offered in his writings for nonviolence. There is one final point that further solidifies the consistency between the founders’ aims and blacks’ causes for complaint. A proper or justified radicalism is never a way of life. Indeed, radicalism is a response to a state of affairs that has been judged cruel or corrupt or deeply unjust. As a response to that world, radicalism seeks to eradicate the very conditions that brought it into being in the first instance. That is, the actions which it issues aim to destabilize the reasons for continued radical action. And we know this is true. As Allen notes: “In pledging their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor, each signer of the Declaration anted up, on behalf of himself personally and his state, an equal stake in the creation of a new political order.” (269) Today we have independence based on a document loved by both white conservatives and white liberals – they’ve gotten the equality and liberty they wanted. We should be grateful to Danielle Allen for giving us a book so clear and erudite about America’s founding that we are now allowed to share with other traditions of political struggle yet one more source of political reasoning to demand the advantages and privileges white Americans have enjoyed ever since the founders and colonists said, “enough is enough.”



Anarcissie 06.16.15 at 2:37 pm

‘This is not the proper space to give an account of what black radical politics would look like.’

I think you need to say something about it to convey your meaning. Radicalism can mean a great many different things — socialism, communism, anarchism, passive resistance, labor and community organizing, separatism, fascism, theocracy, jihad, and so on.

‘White’ people do not actually have equality, and some of them, especially those on top, go to a great deal of trouble to preserve and increase inequality, while others are their victims. This suggests that egalitarian Black radicals might find allies among other egalitarian radicals, which could be advantageous.


Bloix 06.16.15 at 4:04 pm

“Since ‘course’ is just another word for ‘river,’ an image of a waterway lies behind this sentence.”

Oh, dear. “Course” is not a word for river. It has never meant river and it is not derived from a word meaning river. “What is the largest course in America?” “The Danube is a famous course in Europe.” No.

“Course” is from Latin “cursus” (a race, a racecourse) through Old French “cors” (running). The original meaning is of a person or horse running along a track, cyclically or toward a finish line. The metaphoric meanings imply progress, sequence, and forward movement, either toward a goal (“I’ll finish my course this spring”) or repetitively (“and the yonge sonne/ Hath in the Ram his halfe cours y-ronne”).

The analogy between a person or animal running on a track and a body of water flowing in a channel is very old, but the primary meaning of “course” has never been “flow” and certainly never “river.” “Current,” from the same root, is much more closely identified with water, but it separated from “course” early in its development.

There is the compound “watercourse,” which can include rivers or other narrow natural waterways, but it also means canal, channel – structures that metaphorically resemble a track.

For hundreds of years, the primary meaning of “course” has been a literal or metaphorical route – a sequence progressing toward a goal. To set a course for the Indies. Or it can mean one item in a sequence. Our dinner had three courses. Both meanings can co-exist: the course of study includes four required courses.

“Of course” implies regularity – something as predictable as the passage of a horse on a fenced track.

“In the course of” implies an event that takes place as some thing or series of things progress along a metaphorical track. By Jefferson’s time, it was a well-established idiom. Google ngram shows its increasing popularity in the second half of the 18th century – in the course of his life, in the course of the evening, in the course of the session, in the course of their trade, in the course of human affairs.

Even “in the course of human events” was a stock phrase. You can find many examples before 1776, meaning, more or less, when something important happens. And it kept that meaning. The Prince Regent used it in a speech to the House of Lords in 1803, obviously without any reference to Jefferson. Any literal reference to racetracks had long disappeared.

Jefferson’s usage implies that the separation of one people from another is something that happens “in the course of” events. It is important but not outlandish or outrageous or a derogation of God’s plan. It is an event like other events.

It has nothing to do with rivers or river imagery.


Lisa 06.16.15 at 4:56 pm

This post has more levels than Bergdorf’s–a rare thing in Crooked Timber posts. Consider this only a comment on the ground floor.

“Here is my argument: the true spirit of the Declaration can supports a radical black politics that coherently calls into question the present legitimacy of the United States government.”

I wonder why we need any deep reading–This seems straightforwardly true if the claim the Declaration is ‘ whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends [life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness], it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it”

–And most of the harms listed in the Declaration also apply (with some interpretation) to black Americans and have since the founding of the country.

If you read for intent, you’d ask who are the ‘people’ being referred to–the majority of the people? Clearly, only certain people were being counted. But put that aside–that is weak sauce in the kind of document the Declaration purports to be. This makes it likely the Declaration has been declaring “into question the present legitimacy of the United States government” this whole time. The government has never been legitimate if we take the Declaration seriously.

In practical terms the question arises–is the Declaration where people should get their political marching orders?

Well, I’m convinced. But I’m not sure the Declaration gives you much in the way of future guidance.


Z 06.16.15 at 5:18 pm

A very interesting, and as promised provocative, essay. Here is a thought that occurred to me while reading it.

An fact that remains largely implicit in the essay (and which, when made explicit, is problematic) is the fact that the founders were advocating for radical politics on behalf of a people to redress grievances inflicted by another one. So they not only posited grievances (black Americans have enough of these) but also a positively defined people (positive in the original sense of having specific features; in their case geographic and cultural ones). But what is the positively defined people in question here? Who is the “they” in “because blacks today share the same sorts of justification for complaint as [the founders], they […] are justified in pursuing a radical politics”?

A naïve answer would be that it is the people of black Americans but I think the essay distances itself (correctly, in my view) from this position. To start with, “merely being a person who can be identified as racially black” is enough to trigger discrimination, so that the line between “self-identifying as” and “being identified as” is blurry. And of course it is highly doubtful that black Americans themselves (or a significant fraction of them) believe in the existence of such a people.

Taking into account current American society and its incredible level of cultural homogeneity (by international standards), it seems to me that any non-naïve answer would have to reify ethnic characteristics and involve a considerable amount of performativity. I’m not saying this is necessarily a bad thing-though I do think it is in the 21st century incompatible with the kind of welfare social democracy I personally favor, and I do believe that fighting for justice for marginalized social classes is best done by dismantling the institutional preconditions for marginalization, not by appropriating the prejudices of the stronger classes.


Stephen 06.16.15 at 5:37 pm

Z: ” to reify ethnic characteristics and involve a considerable amount of performativity”.

I am a primitive Western peasant with hairs growing between my toes. Could you please explain, in simple words, what (if anything) that means?


Z 06.16.15 at 6:59 pm

Stephen, sure (and I do believe it means something).

I assume that one wants to be able to answer the question “Am I part of the people of black Americans?” If the answer goes like “Well, my skin/hair/lips/nose have have such and such characteristics so yes/no” then morphologic or ethnic characteristics have been transformed into political categories (what I meant by “reifying them” though I should have written “politically reifying them” as these characteristics were not abstract to begin with, but just politically abstract).

Moreover, for the initial question to make sense at all (under current circumstances), the answer yes or no has to be more significant than a mere act of speech: it has to become an integral part of the ongoing construction of the identity of the person. Answering yes or no will compel the person to act in a way or another, just like answering the question “Am I a subject of the Crown or an American?” compelled someone to act in a way or another in 1775. The fact that speech acts (like answers to the question above) are or can become the source of how someone envisions his own identity is what I (and many other people) mean by performativity.


Z 06.16.15 at 7:08 pm

Or if you’re into Mos Def more than into Foucault.

This is business, no faces just lines and statistics
from your phone, your zip code, to S-S-I digits
The system break man child and women into figures
Two columns for who is, and who ain’t niggaz

That’s reifying ethnic characteristics. And the extract is from the album Black on both sides, which is a good example of performativity.


mpowell 06.16.15 at 7:23 pm

Yet, in many important respects, very little racial progress has been made – blacks are still given every reason to believe they are second-class citizens, when they have reason to believe they are considered citizens at all.

Since the time of chattel slavery, really? This sounds enough like “with notable exceptions” that it serves more as a rhetorical weakness than a strength in my opinion. I’d absolutely agree that the declaration of independence assumes the legitimacy of radical politics. It doesn’t do much in particular to support or detract from the case for radical black politics today, imop.


Stephen 06.16.15 at 7:24 pm

Thanks. I was handicapped by a residual knowledge of Latin that made me suppose that “reification” made “making something real”. Which did not make sense, since having what are seen as morphological characteristics is already something real. “Political reification” does make a sort of sense: I can imagine a society in which having different morphological characteristics is not seen as politically important. Can’t immediately think of one, though: any examples?

Given political reification, I can’t see that having performativity takes us any further forward. The one would seem an inevitable consequence of the other.


Z 06.16.15 at 8:19 pm

Yeah, I really should have added political (in fact I had but then Internet ate my comment and I had to start over). “I can imagine a society in which having different morphological characteristics is not seen as politically important. […] any examples?” The important point is that different characteristics will come to incarnate different political positions (and also that the political system will or will not sanction these differences). The difference in complexion between Japanese people can be much greater than the difference between my skin-color and that of Mos Def, yet Japanese people, their society and political system don’t care much about these differences (but they care much more about, for instance, accent or gender) while I’m categorized as white and Mos Def is “blacker than midnight on Broadway and Myrtle.”

“Given political reification, I can’t see that having performativity takes us any further forward. The one would seem an inevitable consequence of the other.”

In general, you are right (as soon as some characteristic is political reified, it will become part of the identity of individuals) but I was discussing specifically the condition of existence of a people of black Americans able to engage in (radical) policies and political reification is not at all a sufficient condition for (numerically meaningful) political performativity. Not all identities lead to identity politics (understood neutrally), and not all identity politics are equally successful. Gender is a good example: it has been politically reified for as long as there have been polities and yet political forces explicitly acknowledging this and drawing explicit conclusions from this have historically been incomparably less influential that those drawing on cultural, class or religious distinctions.


Stephen 06.16.15 at 9:21 pm

Z: I’ve never been to Japan, but Japanese people I have spoken to have told me that having a paler skin (and, IIRC, a longer nose) is a sign of aristocratic origin and high status. But they could have been wrong.


Stephen 06.16.15 at 9:28 pm

Bloix: given the original statement that “This interpretation [course = river] is crucial … because it imbues its writers with a kind of elevated vision”, and your bombing-them-till-the-rubble-bounces demolition of that interpretation, what remains after the crucial interpretation has been rejected?



Bloix 06.16.15 at 10:48 pm

The word “course” in the phrase is a dead metaphor. The word with life is “human.” The establishment of a new government and the rejection of the old is a human event. King George may claim to reign by the Grace of God, but reason as granted us by Nature’s God – quite a different God from George’s – tells us differently.

PS – corrections: the House of Lords speech that uses “in the course of human events” is from 1813, not 1803, and it was Lord Grenville, not the Prince Regent, who was speaking. If I’m going to point out someone else’s errors, I should acknowledge my own.


maidhc 06.17.15 at 2:58 am

It starts out with good stuff about being created equal and having inalienable rights and so on, but if you keep reading you see there are two classes of people who are NOT created equal and do NOT have inalienable rights: inhabitants of “a neighbouring Province, [where] establishing therein an Arbitrary government”, i.e., French-speaking Catholics, and “merciless Indian Savages”.

Some years later, when Jefferson was President, he apparently forgot his own words about “Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed” and went on to impose a government on the Louisiana Territory without making any attempt to secure the consent of the governed. The Louisiana Territory at that time was inhabited mainly by French-speaking Catholics and Indians.


Watson Ladd 06.17.15 at 4:47 am

If one actually considers the end of the Civil Rights Movement, and the emergence of black power, we see two distinct political movements. One lead by Bayard Rustin and Philip Randolph emphasized that blacks were workers, and that the solution was economic organizing. One could even extend this as CLR James did to call for black Trotskyism. The other was black nationalism, which eventually folded into the democratic party. This post seems to naturalize the second, that blacks are “disrespected” by institutions needs to be fixed by ensuring the shared peoplehood of blacks is respected.

I don’t think this is right for several reasons. First, there was a black radical movement directly inspired by the American and French revolutions in Haiti, which was tied to the radical phase of the French Revolution. I don’t know in what sense we could speak of Haiti as black nationalism, rather than emancipation from slavery, when nationalism of any form had yet to be invented. At the same time we are ignoring the ways in which Franz Fanon and others point to the inadequacy of a focus on race in discussing racism.

Secondly, we live in a state where the most powerful man in the country is black, the most powerful lawyer is black, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs was black, the National Security Advisor was black, etc. Race in america looks a lot different from the White House balcony. At the same time the depths of deprivation in Chicago and many small towns across the Midwest seem to go far beyond mere “disrespect”. They are the result of decades of deindustrialization, steady erosion of existing societal institutions, and continued failure to address the problem head on. Can radicalism rooted in the color line deal with this reality, or will it become another iteration of the black power turn?

The black man can become white, on the basis of shared humanity as the organizing principle of society. But the failure of integration was not because of its being stymied, but the contradictory nature of its success, at producing a black working class ready to be hit hard by deindustrialization.


Meredith 06.17.15 at 4:53 am

Samuel Adams.

To summarize: it comes down to accountability. (E.g., taxation per se isn’t the problem, but taxation without representation is.) Accountability is the basso continuo of the Declaration of 1776. It’s also what led good old Sam to oppose Shay’s rebellion in his own commonwealth and the Whisky Rebellion in PA.

Accountability assumes, though, a certain level of communal coherence (despite factional disagreements), to which community and disputes Blacks in America have been denied entry over and over, in weirdly imaginative and aggressive ways. So I think, yes, the argument here has a point.

Then I think: wait. Blacks can vote, however difficult new Jim Crow laws in some states are trying to make it for them. They can form their own interest groups without legal or even (these days, much) social repercussion.

In the spirit of Sam Adams, I’d used the D of C as a war cry for organizing communication among various groups (what he was a master at) and for accountability. Radical only in the sense of “root.”


jake the antisoshul soshulist 06.17.15 at 1:34 pm

Since the industrial revolution, and probably the agricultural revolution, race has been used to divide the working class against itself . Once it was realized that they didn’t even have to pay half the working class (Jay Gould was a piker), to shoot (figuratively, most of the time) the other, it was open season on whoever was at the bottom of the barrel. Everyone should be aware of the fact that, depending on the circumstances, we can all be (as Mos Def had it) Niggaz.
“We the people” has proved to be a rather amorphous concept.


Stephen 06.17.15 at 6:49 pm

Z@10: many thanks for the explanation, from which I have learned a fair amount about Foucaultisation (if there is such a word).

As I understand it, what you are saying is:
Many people in the US think that the distinction between black and white is politically very important. In parallel with, or because of, this, blacks are often mistreated.

I don’t think anyone would disagree with this, or be surprised by it. Admittedly, the Foucaulted version is far more magniloquent.


Bloix 06.17.15 at 9:12 pm

Chief Justice Taney, in his opinion in the Dred Scott case, admits that the language of the Declaration is broad enough to include the whole human family, but he and Judge Douglas argue that the authors of that instrument did not intend to include negroes, by the fact that they did not at once actually place them on an equality with the whites.

Now this grave argument comes to just nothing at all, by the other fact that they did not at once, or ever afterward, actually place all white people on an equality with one another. And this is the staple argument of both the chief justice and the senator for doing this obvious violence to the plain, unmistakable language of the Declaration!

I think the authors of that notable instrument intended to include all men, but they did not intend to declare all men equal in all respects. They did not mean to say all were equal in color, size, intellect, moral developments, or social capacity. They defined with tolerable distinctness in what respects they did consider all men created equal — equal with “certain inalienable rights, among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” This they said, and this they meant. They did not mean to assert the obvious untruth that all were then actually enjoying that equality, nor yet that they were about to confer it immediately upon them. In fact, they had no power to confer such a boon. They meant simply to declare the right, so that enforcement of it might follow as fast as circumstances should permit.

They meant to set up a standard maxim for free society, which should be familiar to all, and revered by all; constantly looked to, constantly labored for, and even though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated, and thereby constantly spreading and deepening its influence and augmenting the happiness and value of life to all people of all colors everywhere.

Abraham Lincoln, Speech delivered at Springfield, Illinois, June 26, 1857


Z 06.18.15 at 2:19 am

As I understand it, what you are saying is:
Many people in the US think that the distinction between black and white is politically very important. In parallel with, or because of, this, blacks are often mistreated.

No, that’s not what I’m saying. What I’m saying is that black Americans have serious grievances, perhaps like the Americans in 1775, but that the founders had at their disposal a community of people a sizable proportion of which considered itself a people and was ready to pick up a fight based on that notion, whereas would-be black radical politicians today have no such (imagined) community at their disposal. And I’m further saying that the manufacture of such a people would seem to have to ground itself on explicitly racial characteristics (whereas the people the founders appealed to was characterized by positive features more amenable to political action, starting with geographical ones). It’s not a groundbreaking contribution but neither is it a total triviality.

That said, I’ve already commented too much on that thread, so I’ll shut up now and hope Chris Lebron himself will show up.

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