The Corruption of a Noble Idea

Last year, I wrote a piece entitled “The Principles Upon Which This Nation Rests,” describing why America is an idea rather than a mere set of governing institutions. The American idea is that “all men are Created equal.” 

This principle is indicative of the natural rights tradition of the American Founding--a basic recognition that there are certain rights granted to all men at birth that cannot be infringed upon by the government.

Unfortunately, America has not always lived up to its lofty idea, having broken out into a bloody Civil War over the continuation and expansion of slavery. Slavery was a violation of the idea and in order to return to it, we as a nation would have to re-commit ourselves to our founding principles. But how was it that the original idea became so corrupted as to become a defense for slavery?

Many Southerners interpreted the Constitution in such a way that was in accordance with their designs. Alexander Stephens, Vice President of the Confederacy, declared, “Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests upon the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery — subordination to the superior race — is his natural and normal condition.” The Southerns either had to deny the the principles of the Founding or say the Founding did not include blacks. Stephens took the view that the Founders were sincere, but they wrong.

Stephens was wrong. The Declaration of Independence is clear: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights…These were not exclusively for whites, despite what the fringes would claim. “All men” includes all human beings.

“All men” is the linking phrase to the “We the People of the United States” in the Preamble to the Constitution. These principles are inseparable from the Constitution.

Abraham Lincoln explained this link likening the Declaration to an apple of gold surrounded by a picture of silver: “The assertion of that principle, at that time, was the word, 'fitly spoken' which has proved an ‘apple of gold’ to us. The Union, and the Constitution, are the picture of silver, subsequently framed around it...the picture was made for the apple — not the apple for the picture.” The Declaration provided the right principles applicable to all people and all times while the Constitution built a government designed to protect those principles.

The people were to blame for the perpetuation of the peculiar institution, not the design of the nation itself. The Founders may have sought justice, but the people veered away from their intent and came to rationalize an institution which dehumanized rather than elevated. Those in favor of slavery addressed an audience who had grown accustomed to black inferiority, and a change in the law would not change one's racial animus.

Slavery could and had to be eliminated because it was antithetical to the purpose of the American Experiment. The government was instituted to protect the rights of all men. It took a bloody Civil War to atone for this original sin of slavery.

The black man may not have been treated as a man by his white contemporaries, but the truth remained, even if the people had to undergo a violent conflict to adhere to it. The brutal lessons America learned through the work of Lincoln and the perilous Civil War were required for her to more fully adhere to its great creed that “all men are Created equal.”