AMAC Exclusive by Daniel Roman
As America celebrates the 245th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence this July 4, the legacy of the Declaration is under attack like perhaps never before. Much of the American left has adopted the view—one even espoused by Joe Biden’s Ambassador to the United Nations—that the Declaration is a “white supremacist” document. This is among the central notions of what has become known as Critical Race Theory. Yet this idea, so crucial to the thinking of the modern left, is not only not true, but the clear historical record shows that the exact opposite is true. The Declaration of Independence did not forever enshrine slavery and racism into the soul of America—it set slavery on the path to inevitable global extinction.
The question goes to the heart of the faith which has animated liberal thought toward race since long before it was formalized in the New York Times’ 1619 Project and Critical Race Theory—a belief not just that America has sins, or was imperfect, but that America was and is uniquely sinful and worse than everyone else.
In this version of American history, the truth of 1776 is not merely that the Founders were forced to make pragmatic compromises with reality and take time to achieve the aspirations they set themselves. It is not simply that Thomas Jefferson, despite his repeated personal desire to do so, failed to see the elimination of slavery in his lifetime.
No, the 1619 Project and Critical Race Theory’s historical claim is much bigger than that. They claim that Jefferson and the Founders never cared to see the end of slavery at all, and above all, they claim that the American Revolution itself was fought specifically to entrench slavery, driven by fears that Britain might abolish it.
As has been noted even by a number of liberal and partisan Democratic historians, these claims are total nonsense.
The abolition of slavery in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia followed rather than preceded the Declaration of Independence and it did so for a simple reason. The British, far from being a force for emancipation, were a force against it. In fact, they opposed any move toward emancipation for the same reason the American Revolution was necessary in the first place. London sought control of all trade and economic activities in the colonies for revenue raising purposes. The British Exchequer profited from the buying and selling of slaves in American ports, and British banks invested heavily in loans to slave trading firms. Any attack on the slave trade would have been as much an act of rebellion against Britain as the attack on the tea trade was.
Reality is the inverse of the 1619 Project’s thesis. Rather than being an effort to avert any moves toward emancipation or restrictions on slavery, American Independence was a prerequisite for any legal limitations to it.
And the evidence is that far from being empty words, many of those who signed their names to the Declaration in 1776 meant what they said about all men being created equal. In 1776, slavery was legal in every single colony. In the years to come it was outlawed in Pennsylvania in 1780, New Hampshire and Massachusetts in 1783, and Connecticut and Rhode Island in 1784. After the Constitution was ratified, it was abolished in New York (1799) and New Jersey (1804).
Indeed, the period around 1776 marked a pivot point that set off a wave of abolitions around the globe. In his 2011 book Better Angels of our Nature, scholar Stephen Pinker illustrates this trend perfectly with a graph charting the progress of abolitionism worldwide:
What explains this remarkable chart, and the rapid succession of American states that abolished slavery shortly after independence?
One answer is that the ideas of the American Declaration of Independence did not emerge out of thin air. As countless scholars have argued, and Pinker explained in his 2018 book Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, America’s founding document represented an encapsulation of the ideas and values of the European Enlightenment, which challenged certainties about the social order and the world. All institutions—monarchs and Popes, empires and even slavery—were forced to justify themselves based on reason. In other words, simply having existed for centuries was no longer enough.
That’s one reason why the Declaration of Independence stood out at the time – its language was a radical departure from what had come before.
Previous British and European rebellions had generally tried to contest that they were in fact rebelling at all. Their proclamations often read like complex legal briefs, referencing obscure land rights cases from 1231. When America’s Founding Fathers issued their declaration, however, they did something different. They made bold appeals to Enlightenment ideas such as universal rights. In their declaration, all men were equal not because a royal charter said so, but because God created them that way. Their rights existed not because a King granted them or a Parliament passed them into law, but because they were unalienable.
These Enlightenment ideas generally, and the American Revolution specifically, set the end of slavery in motion in several very practical ways.
As we have seen, no territory in America outlawed slavery under British rule, and the British in fact did not allow any territory they ruled to exercise that sort of autonomy in any other case either prior to that point or subsequently. Meanwhile, every northern U.S. state was able to outlaw slavery by 1804, yet the British Empire did not do so until 1833.
“Aha” the leftists will say, “but slavery remained in the American South until the Civil War was over in 1865.” This is true, of course, but there is no reason to believe the British would have tried to abolish slavery if it would have risked conflict or cost.
On the contrary, it is almost impossible to imagine that there even would have been an abolitionist movement anywhere in the world without the success of the American Revolution.
For one thing, the British abolitionist movement itself emerged as a propaganda move during the wars against Napoleon. The French Revolution, which by the way was directly inspired by the American example, had abolished slavery throughout French territory. French slaveholders in the Caribbean resisted these decrees, and when slaves and supporters of the French Revolution tried to enforce them, the French slaveholders called in the British Royal Navy, which happily seized French sugar islands under the pretext of “suppressing a slave rebellion.” Public revulsion against this use of British military force to reintroduce slavery spread in Britain, driven by those who had sympathized with or supported the American cause. The first British abolitionists overlapped with the American sympathizers of the 1770s.
On a wider level, the abolition of slavery anywhere was the clear and direct consequence of those enlightenment ideas which inspired the American Declaration and which the American Revolution had given real credence in a non-theoretical sense for the first time, transforming the relationship between governments and the governed.
For centuries, political thought in Europe had been defined not in terms of the “rights” of individuals as people, but rather through the privileges of classes and offices. The Magna Carta of 1215 might have been progressive in that it restricted the power of the English King, but it restricted the power of the King over a class, his nobles. The right of nobles to govern their estates as they saw fit, to avoid taxation without their consent, and to be guaranteed a jury of their peers in any legal proceeding, meant that peasants unlucky enough to live on their estates, or Jews living in their towns, lost the ability to appeal to the King for protection.
In this environment—the pre-American Revolution environment—any effort by a King to abolish slavery would have been seen as an act of tyranny, one in which a despot stripped the property of “citizens” without their consent.
It is thus no coincidence that when slavery was abolished in U.S. states, it was done not by a King, but by governments that could claim to be elected by the people. In the new American republic, elected officeholders who abolished slavery were exercising the people’s sovereign right to self-government to fulfill the moral imperatives of the Enlightenment. It was the ideas and institutions put in place by the Revolution that made this possible at all.
Before the Revolution, no state had ever abolished slavery, and arguably no state could. After it, the pressure was irresistible, and it became seen as a requirement of republican self-government not just in America, but everywhere.
The authors of the American Declaration intentionally lit a beacon for the world, an example for other nations and peoples to follow. Nonetheless, unlike the French Revolution, the American Founders pursued their radical and uncompromising goals through conservative means, protecting property, respecting the rule of law, and giving American society enough time to actually realize the rights of human equality and freedom far beyond the dreams of the Founders.
The survival of their republic two and a half centuries later, and the total equality under the law of all men and women, races, and religions is a testament to that approach.
In time, America was able to abolish slavery in the 1860s in the bloodiest war of its history, and a century later bring to about a civil rights movement which brought this final measure of equality. These events stand out as among the only times in human history when a society has drastically reformed itself, as opposed to being transformed by foreign invasion or a murderous dictator.
The historical fact is that the American project launched on July 4, 1776 was a work in progress which took time to reach its full potential. But if the American Declaration of Independence did not abolish slavery overnight, or bring about racial equality the following day, it set the nation on the path that made those things inevitable. In fact, it set the entire world on a path where they seemed only a matter of time.
Contrary to the claims of the 1619 crowd and the Founding’s other detractors, it is impossible to see how slavery or racial equality would have developed in a world in which the Americans failed, the authors of the Declaration were hanged, and the British proved that rights and power did not derive from the consent of the governed or God, but from what Kings felt inclined to grant. In that world, everyone would have remained slaves.
Daniel Roman is the pen name of a frequent commentator and lecturer on foreign policy and political affairs, both nationally and internationally. He holds a Ph.D. in International Relations from the London School of Economics.