Publick Occurrences 2.0

December 2, 2012

What People Don’t Get About Historical Context

In the past day or so, a post from the Volokh Conspiracy blog has been circulating around my Twitter feed in which David Post suggests—no, actually, he comes right out and says—that anyone who tries to bring Jefferson’s slaveholding into the picture as part of his history is unduly tarnishing his ideas about freedom and liberty. In part, Post relies on his research on Lincoln’s uses of Jeffersonian liberty. William Hogeland had perhaps the best rejoinder:

Absolutely right, and as I noted myself on Twitter, Post made a categorical error in missing the historical context. Making the claim that “all men are created equal” meant something rather different in 1776 than it did by 1860, and even then it does today. For that matter, the Declaration has rarely had a settled meaning. Another President inaugurated in 1861 also used the Declaration’s preamble as justification for his nation’s actions:

Our present political position has been achieved in a manner unprecedented in the history of nations. It illustrates the American idea that governments rest on the consent of the governed, and that it is the right of the people to alter or abolish them at will whenever they become destructive of the ends for which they were established. The declared purpose of the compact of the Union from which we have withdrawn was to “establish justice, insure domestic tranquillity, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity;” and when, in the judgment of the sovereign States composing this Confederacy, it has been perverted from the purposes for which it was ordained, and ceased to answer the ends for which it was established, a peaceful appeal to the ballot box declared that, so far as they are concerned, the Government created by that compact should cease to exist. In this they merely asserted the right which the Declaration of Independence of July 4, 1776, defined to be “inalienable.” Of the time and occasion of its exercise they as sovereigns were the final judges, each for itself. The impartial and enlightened verdict of mankind will vindicate the rectitude of our conduct; and He who knows the hearts of men will judge of the sincerity with which we have labored to preserve the Government of our fathers in its spirit.

But what did Jefferson Davis know, really?

Want another example? Here’s one that David Armitage included in his appendix to The Declaration of Independence: A Global History. Guess the author!

“All men are created equal. They are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”

This immortal statement was made in the Declaration of Independence of the United States of America in 1776. In a broader sense, this means: All the peoples on the earth are equal from birth, all the peoples have a right to live, to be happy and free.

The Declaration of the French Revolution made in 1791 on the Rights of Man and the Citizen also states: “All men are born free and with equal rights, and must always remain free and have equal rights.”

Those are undeniable truths.

Nevertheless, for more than eighty years, the French imperialists, abusing the standard of Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity, have violated our Fatherland and oppressed our fellow­citizens. They have acted contrary to the ideals of humanity and justice.

If you had Ho Chi Minh, you win a free subscription to Publick Occurrences 2.0!

All snark aside, it is indeed a mistake—far more so than pointing out, as Samuel Johnson did, the irony of slave owners proclaiming the vital importance of liberty—to extract the political ideas from the context.

It’s something I try to address in teaching the Declaration of Independence. When we discuss the preamble, I point out that few paid attention to the preamble (the portion that we now consider sacrosanct as part of our national mythos). That language was frankly not particularly controversial to a gentleman well educated in the ideas of the Enlightenment. What was controversial, and new, and distinct, was to take those ideas, attach them to a lengthy list of grievances, and then declare the severance of bonds with another country (the second and third sections of the Declaration). Have the ideas of the Declaration inspired millions? Indeed, and Armitage’s book is a good source both for the history and for the collection of primary sources he has amassed. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t have a discussion about the context in which the ideas developed; in fact I would argue quite the opposite. It’s imperative to understand ideas as products of their time. As Lynn Hunt has argued, human rights had to be invented, and claims to their self-evidence (previously not evident) were part of the process.

We’ll keep having this discussion, but it’s worth repeating one more time: historical context matters. A lot.



  1. “Historical context matters. A lot.” MT @jmadelman A response to ahistorical musings re Jefferson

    Comment by @Raherrmann — December 2, 2012 @ 1:54 pm

  2. Here’s @jmadelman spittin’ wisdom about history and context.

    Comment by @BenjaminEPark — December 2, 2012 @ 2:33 pm

  3. @jmadelman: #Jefferson’s equality language “not particularly controversial” in 1776. #history #context

    Comment by William Hogeland (@WilliamHogeland) — December 2, 2012 @ 2:45 pm

  4. As you well know, I’m totally on board with the importance of understanding historical context. It seems crazy to me that people think that pointing out Jefferson’s relation to slavery is either irrelevant or tarnishes his views of freedom/liberty. The fact is that his views were shaped by the world around him, and that can be a value-neutral statement. It’s then up to modern society to work out if those links tarnish the connection enough. (Which raises the interesting question of why so many people seem happy to cede judgement on important issues to the past).

    I’m not sure I agree with your use of Lynn Hunt to make your final argument, though. I see the notion of rights as having a much longer heritage; I’m thinking here of Simon Middleton’s work, for example, on the move from privileges to rights. But ‘right’ was often the word used to describe those privileges. Sure, there’s a difference in a claim to universality, but even then that’s an obviously self-serving claim, given how many ‘rights’ weren’t agreed on by the individual states in their own constitutions. (Hamilton has some interesting things to say about this in Federalist 84!)

    I think I’d also emphasize that you wouldn’t have needed to be a gentleman in this period to fully understand the expression of Enlightenment ideals in the preamble of the Declaration – this sort of language was in all kinds of popular resolutions. I do wonder, though, if the notion of enumerating grievances is all that new – there are similarities between English Civil War denunciations, and Bacon’s Declaration of Grievances in terms of style here. And that would again call into question that notion of ‘human rights’ being something new under the sun – it seems to me there is a longstanding notion of unacceptable encroachments against the liberties of the people.

    I think I will stop there, though, before I sound too much like I’m in direct agreement with John Adams and the classical republican paradigm.

    Comment by Ken Owen — December 4, 2012 @ 10:42 am

  5. I don’t think we particularly disagree, so let me try to clarify my point. Without denigrating a longer history of “rights” both as concept and linguistic descriptor, during that period those rights came to be seen as both universal and self-evident. I think that’s Hunt’s point, in any case. They were thus “invented” in the sense of their application to the entire population of white men. Jefferson didn’t come up with that idea (and I argue forcefully that the Declaration is not merely authored by Jefferson, as you know).

    As for the spread of those ideas, you have caught me in a moment of haste. I did not intend to suggest that the ideas of the Enlightenment were limited to gentlemen. Indeed I emphasize that the ideas of Locke, Montesquieu, etc. were out in broad brush strokes whether or not someone had actually read the Treatises or L’Esprit des Lois. Which is all the more reason why they weren’t particularly controversial when they appeared in the preamble to the Declaration.

    Comment by Joseph M. Adelman — December 5, 2012 @ 12:56 pm

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