Rakove Reviews Tsesis on the Declaration of Independence

I have not read Alexander Tsesis’s new book about the Declaration of Independence.  From this review by Jack Rakove, though, it appears that Professor Tsesis makes some “powerful moral claims” about the nature and scope of the “self-evident” “truth[]” “that all men are created equal.”  I have always been struck by the powerful religious text grounding the various principles enunciated in the Declaration, but at a quick glance, it does not seem that Professor Tsesis makes very much of this (though perhaps there are portions of the book where this text is discussed).  He does (again, according to Professor Rakove’s review) appear to advance the claim that the Constitution needs to be amended and updated to reflect a core egalitarian creed that he reads into the Declaration.  Professor Rakove has this to say:

In short, Tsesis collapses into the Declaration a host of claims that text and context simply cannot support, assigning to it qualities and purposes it was not originally intended or understood to possess. His most basic misunderstanding goes to the great equality principle that Jefferson condensed into “all men are created equal.” Americans have long read that to mean that we are or should become equal to one another as citizens. That, in effect, is how we have democratized the Constitution since 1776—as Tsesis ably demonstrates. When inequalities are perceived and become objectionable, we cite the Declaration in support of our leveling claims. Often we do that not merely because the inequalities are unjust in themselves, but also because we believe that the Declaration instructs us to oppose them. But the intended meaning of 1776 was never about inequality within American society. It was instead a statement that Americans as a people, as a collective whole, were equally endowed with other peoples with the right to oppose tyranny, to “alter and abolish” unjust governments and establish new governments in their stead. This form of equality means little to us now, but in the revolutionary circumstances of 1776, that was the equality Americans needed to assert.

2 responses

  1. Yes, that’s what Rakove’s review says. But Lincoln — for all of his considerable gifts — was not presenting himself as a scholar of the Declaration of Independence. He was a politician.

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