Why not tear down the monuments of the slaveholders who made the American Revolution, viz., Washington, Jefferson, and Madison? For me, a guy who teaches history for a living, the question boils down to this: what was that revolution about? It’s a good question on this fateful eve of the 4th of July, when the republic created by the revolution is endangered by features–failures–of its own design.
If Gerald Horne and his minions are right to answer that it was actually a counter-revolution meant to preserve slavery, or if their “progressive” antecedents** are right to answer that the American Thermidor came between 1787 and 1789, when conservative nationalists put the republican lid called the Constitution on the democratic radicalism of the 1760s, 70s, and 80s, why then there might be a point in celebrating independence–but in mourning what followed, and in taking bids on rebuilding the Mall.
Except that bestride this “progressive” narrative we find the imposing figure of Thomas Jefferson, the slaveholder who lamented slavery as Charles Bukowski the alcoholic lamented alcohol, also the man who wrote the Declaration of Independence, which claimed that “all men are created equal,” then again the man who wrote the Northwest Ordinance of 1785 and 1789, which barred slavery from territories north of the Ohio River and which in 1865 became the legal/rhetorical groundwork of the 13th Amendment–but a man who played no role in writing the Constitution. This man was genuinely befuddled by James Madison’s diligent study of previous republics, and by his friend’s careful calculation of how to separate governmental powers.
So let’s look at the effects of the Declaration and the Constitution, one authored by Jefferson, the other by Madison–both slaveholders from Virginia, like the “father” of their country and ours. (Notice that you’ve never see a monument to Madison.) Before we do, I will say just this in my capacity as a professional historian. Between them Frederick Douglas and Abraham Lincoln were the best published readers of the relation between the Declaration and the Constitution as it pertained to slavery (the jurists, theorists, and activists who congregated around Theodore Weld and Angelina Grimke’s Abolition House in Washington, D.C. are the chorus we hear in what these great men said). See Douglass’s speeches of July 6, 1852, and April 14, 1876, and Lincoln’s speeches of October 16, 1854, and January 27, 1860. James Oakes and David Blight read Douglass and Lincoln for our times in The Radical and the Republican (2008) and Frederick Douglass (2019). Long before them, Harry Jaffa, a Claremont Straussian, got it right in Crisis of the House Divided (1959).
All right, then. Why did Herman Melville say “the Declaration of Independence makes a difference”? Why do we, us Americans, still believe that it does? And why do we revere the Constitution? Or at least treat it as a sturdy bridge that crosses over from the handwritten past of “original intent” to the tweeted future of instantaneous apprehension? In short, what did the American Revolution accomplish “in the minds of the people,” as John Adams measured the results?
(1) The Declaration makes the equality of all men and women the founding principle of modern governance–equality not just in the eyes of God, as per the Christian dispensation, but here and now on this earth, as human beings who might imagine and legislate a way of life in which consent to the law, and therefore justice to all who are ruled by it, become normal, mere commonplace, but also normative, goals constantly to be strived for. From this angle, every hierarchy is questionable–subject to interrogation and change. The Declaration is Everyman’s Revolution, a universal principle to be applied wherever necessary, from the Wesleyan Chapel in Seneca Falls, New York, July, 1848 to Ba Dinh Square in Hanoi, Vietnam, December, 1945.
Notice that when Lincoln says “four score and seven years ago” in 1863, he’s saying that we, the American people, were invented in 1776, not 1787–as the progeny of the Declaration, not the Constitution. He always insisted on the priority of the Declaration, the ethical principle of the founding, but, following the lead of Douglass rather than that of William Lloyd Garrison or John Brown, the archetypal abolitionists who reviled the Constitution as a pact with the Devil, Lincoln treated it as a historical circumstance–a compromise in keeping with the ethical principle of the Declaration’s original intent.
Notice also the immediate practical effect of the Declaration on the rules of engagement in war–already, in 1776. George Washington had it read to his rag-tag army in Pennsylvania, who fled to Valley Forge from Manhattan, where they had been soundly defeated in the Battle of New York. It had a profound effect on him as well as his troops. Washington’s new rules, learned by consulting with as well as commanding that unruly lot, were (a) no foraging, because it alienates our fellow citizens, (b) no bravery because it loses lives, (c) no “general engagement” because we can’t win that fight against the mightiest army in the world, and (d) no mistreatment of prisoners of war because that violates the principle for which we fight. His message to officers with captured British soldiers was plainly inspired by the Declaration: “You are to take charge of  privates of the British Army. . . . Treat them with humanity, and Let them have no reason to Complain of our Copying the brutal example of the British army in their Treatment of our unfortunate brethren.” He referred to the prison ships of New York harbor, “the hulks” as they were known, where American patriots were starved and flogged to death because as insurrectionists, rioters, and looters, they were enemies of the crown, and thus deserved no quarter (no mercy).
(2) In that fabled Gettysburg Address, Lincoln was of course invoking the Declaration, but he was also asking us to remember the Constitution: “our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” He knew better than most that the Constitution represented the nation convened by an antecedent people who could not be imagined and gathered except as equals, on the terms specified by the Declaration. In his Cooper Institute address of February 27, 1860, he sutured the two documents by demonstrating that of the 39 men who drafted and signed the Constitution, 21 acted decisively on the question of Congressional jurisdiction over slavery in the federal territories, affirming the exclusions first enunciated in the Northwest Ordinance–in effect announcing that the Constitution itself was an anti-slavery instrument, to be used in the ideological struggle to prove that “all men are created equal.”
(3) The Constitution is built on three revolutionary ideas that are exceptional, or rather were when it was ratified.
(a) The sovereignty of the people, or the supremacy of society over the state. Sovereignty resides not in the hands of the king, the parliament, the prime minister, the cabinet, nor in the offices of the president, the enumerated powers of the Congress, nor in any agent of the state, elected or not, but in the people assembled “out of doors,” beyond the halls of power–assembled as they see fit, wherever that shall be, in the streets if necessary. The legitimacy of state power is contingent on the consent of the governed, so that legitimacy must be constantly renewed as the composition of the people changes and with it the criteria of their consent.
We are now engaged in a sublimated civil war testing whether this nation, or any nation so conceived, can survive the rigors of such change.
(b) The rights of property and the rights of persons are the “two cardinal Objects of Government”–this according to Madison, who, in criticizing the Articles of Confederation and preparing to replace them, starting in 1786, had studied all previous republics, ancient and modern, and had concluded that every one of them had failed because the rights of property took precedence over the rights of persons. In his words: “the poor were sacrificed to the rich.”
Madison’s question thus became, how to make this republic last, knowing that “in all Populous countries, the smaller part only can be interested in the rights of property”? Already, as early as 1787, he saw that the majority of Americans would soon be propertyless proletarians with no stake in protecting the rich against the poor. What, then? How to write a Constitution that would balance the two cardinal objects of government? His solution was to divide the legislative branch against itself, making the Senate the representative of the rights of property, and the House the representative of the rights of persons. He called it the “middle mode” between direct democracy and oligarchic rule.
Until the Reagan Revolution, a.k.a. the advent of neo-liberalism, this staged standoff between persons and property was irresolvable, just as Madison intended. Since then, the rights of property have prevailed. The poor have been sacrificed to the rich. Original intent could help us to restore some balance, or to just eat the rich, in the name of the republic.
(c) By framing the question of founding in these terms, as a debate on how to reconcile the rights of property and the rights of persons, Madison solves, or just evades, the competing claims of liberty and equality–as phrased by recent political theory and activism, this competition registers as individualism versus community, liberalism versus socialism, narcissism versus solidarity, and so on, even unto white versus black.
Like most of the founders, Madison knew that liberty was impossible absent equality, and vice versa. If the rights of persons mattered less than the rights of property, if the poor were sacrificed to the rich, the republic was already effectively adjourned. Like most of his compatriots, he never lost faith in equality, in that old Declaration, not even when he knew it would someday endanger the rights of property–even the rights of property in the men and women and children who were called slaves.
A renewed discovery of and devotion to the rights of persons has, in our time, done just that—it’s endangered the rights of property–even as, but not even though, the very idea of equality has expanded so far as to involve different species in our discussion of who, or what, bears rights. Just us humans? I like to think that Washington, Jefferson, and particularly Madison saw this coming.
So, sure, tear down those monuments. Just remember what their models were up to.
**”Progressive” historical writing came of age ca. 1893-1960, in the works of Frederick Jackson Turner, Charles A. Beard, W.E.B. Du Bois, Howard Beale, Merrill Jensen, William Appleman Williams, et al., who argued that the Constitution was a conservative, nationalist answer to the democratic radicalism unleashed by Independence, the revolutionary war against Great Britain, and the Articles of Confederation, which was, as Madison said at the time, more a diplomatic compact of sovereign states than a constitutional framework of a modern nation-state.
**Progressive historiography: Beard, Jensen, Lynd, Williams