Last night in my lecture at Yale on the topic of equality (previewed here, and coming soon as a podcast) I mentioned that the popular leftist attack today on the American Founding and especially on the Declaration of Independence is ironically the exact same argument the southern defenders of slavery made in the 1850s. Stephen Douglas explicitly argued that Jefferson only meant white English men in his phrase “all men are created equal,” while other slave apologists called the Declaration a “self-evident lie.” But as most liberals today are historically ignorant, they are unaware of their affinity for the slaveholders’ position. (Or, you could say that the Democratic Party really hasn’t changed much since the 1850s. . .)
This wasn’t always true of liberals. Take Martin Luther King Jr. as an example. In a speech on July 4, 1965, King said of the Declaration:
“The first saying we notice in this dream is an amazing universalism. It doesn’t say, ‘some men’; it says ‘all men.’ It doesn’t say ‘all white men’; it says ‘all men,’ which includes black men. It does not say ‘all Gentiles’; it says ‘all men,’ which includes Jews. It doesn’t say ‘all Protestants’; it says ‘all men,’ which includes Catholics. It doesn’t even say ‘all theists and believers’; it says ‘all men,’ which includes humanists and agnostics.”
What happened to this understanding of things on the left? That’s a long story.
But now and then, however, you find a liberal who actually knows history and notices this problem, and has the decency to be embarrassed about it. Like Harvard’s Jill Lepore, who writes frequently in The New Yorker and elsewhere, and who has a large new book about American history just out titled These Truths. In a recent interview with the Chronicle of Higher Education (in which among other things she dissed Howard Zinn), Lepore throws in with this:
The whole Lincoln-Douglas debate in 1858 comes down to Douglas saying, Our forefathers founded this country for white men and their posterity forever. And Lincoln, following on the writings of black abolitionists like Frederick Douglass and David Walker and Maria Stewart, says, No, that’s just not true! Lincoln read in the founding documents a universal claim of political equality and natural rights, the universality of the sovereignty of the people, not the particularity. Anyone who makes an identity-based claim for a political position has to reckon with the unfortunate fact that Stephen Douglas is their forebear, not Abraham Lincoln or Frederick Douglass.
That last sentence could get Prof. Lepore banned from faculty meetings, where identity politics is now sacrosanct.