Robert Kennedy's  United States History Class


Learning Objective II:

Discuss the structure of the Declaration of Independence.

The Declaration of Independence had two main parts:

The first part was called the preamble which stated the theory of natural rights and asserted the right under certain circumstances of revolution.  First, the preamble stated that governments must rest upon "the consent of the governed," for they are set up to protect certain rights--"Life , Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

 The preamble continued by stating that: "Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes." But the long list of grievances against the King was meant to prove that in THIS case the causes were oppressive and that the Americans had suffered "a long train of abuses and usurpations" which showed an intention "to reduce them under absolute Despotism ."  And finally the preamble pointed out that they had more than a right--they had a duty--to rebel.

The second part of the document was a list of Grievances or a long array of abuses of power from which the colonists felt they had suffered.  Although most of their quarrels had been with acts of Parliament, the list of Grievances was directed at "the present King of Great Britain."  Jefferson did this deliberately.  By attacking the King himself, the colonists were showing that there was NO possibility they could be persuaded to remain within the empire.  In political theory the King was the highest of the political authorities and they were making it clear that they would not accept any British authority.   

In the list of Grievances, Jefferson stressed George's interference with the functioning of representative  government in the colonies, his restrictions on civil rights, and his maintenance of troops in the colonies in time of peace and without their consent.  George was also held responsible for many actions by subordinates that he never authorized and for some things that never happened.    

 In structuring the Declaration of Independence it is apparent that the Continental Congress did not include blacks as members of society. One of the above mentioned fabricated charges against the King was Jefferson's  attempt to blame him for the existence of slavery in the colonies.   Jefferson's effort to include the .black man in the document did not meet with the approval of the Continental Congress who cut the paragraph from the document because of its economic and social implications. Thus, by its intentional omission of blacks, the Continental Congress was indicating its intention to exclude blacks from equal membership in society. Jefferson's paragraph which attacked the institution of slavery is as follows:   

 "He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. This piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the Christian king of Great Britain, determined to keep open a market where MEN should be bought and sold...suppressing every legislative  attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce ...he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he had deprived them, by murdering the people upon whom he also obtruded."
Jefferson said the clause was taken out " complaisance to South Carolina and Georgia, who had never attempted to restrain the importation of slaves, and who, on the contrary, still wished to continue it. Our Northern brethren also, I believe, felt a little tender under those censures; for though their people had very few slaves themselves, yet they had been pretty considerable carriers of them to others."

The fact that the founding fathers did not intend to include the blacks as members of society when the Declaration was written was pointed out in the Dred Scott decision in 1857. In that case the U.S. Supreme Court held that Scott, who was a black slave and had sued for his freedom holding that he had become free because of his stay in a free state and free territory, was not a citizen of the United States or the state of Missouri, and thus was not entitled to sue in the federal courts.

In writing his opinion on the case, Chief Justice Roger Taney made reference to the Declaration of Independence. He reasoned that since blacks were not included in the document at that time it was drafted there was never any intent to recognize them as citizens and thus they had never become one.

This raises an important question. How do we interpret the Declaration of Independence: as a racist document or as a document that was reflecting the attitude of society by the standards of that time (which, by today's standards, would be considered racist). Is it sound reasoning to evaluate a document written over 200 years ago by today's values or may it be looked upon as a way of viewing society's growth?