Alexander Tsesis. For Liberty and Equality: The Life and Times of the Declaration of Independence. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012. x + 397 pp. $29.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-537969-3.
Reviewed by John Ruddiman (Wake Forest)
Published on H-War (August, 2014)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey
Glittering Generalities? The Declaration of Independence and American Politics
In 1776 the Declaration of Independence asserted three interlocking claims: the United States was rightfully establishing itself as a sovereign entity; this separation from Great Britain was warranted by the malfeasance of George III; and it was the self-evident truth that all men were created equal and endowed with inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Alexander Tsesis, a professor of law at Loyola University School of Law-Chicago, refuses to accept that Thomas Jefferson’s words about rights and equality were merely “glittering generalities.” Instead, his book demonstrates that each generation of Americans from the Revolution through the 1960s used the Declaration’s basic assertions about liberty in their political debates and struggles to change society. The strength of Tsesis’s book lies with its breadth of scope and amount of evidence. Historians of American history, however, will find his analysis and explanation of this collected material frustrating.
The book opens with the familiar story of the drafting and distribution of the Declaration in the American Revolution. Tsesis’s research seeks to show—as Jefferson himself asserted—that the Declaration simply embodied common sentiments held by Americans during the Revolution. Though he interestingly touches on the pursuit of workers' and women’s rights in the early republic, questions of slavery and race posed the greater challenge to Jefferson’s self-evident truths. Consequently, the narrative picks up steam with the role of the Declaration in the Missouri Crisis of 1820; that eruption of sectional conflict over slavery’s expansion mixed with a crescendo of patriotic memories of the Revolution. The Declaration reached its full strength as Abraham Lincoln’s political touchstone in the secession crisis and Civil War. Tsesis then explores how political actors across the second half of the nineteenth century used the Declaration to rally support for the Reconstruction Amendments to the Constitution, the initial push for the civil rights of black citizens, and the women’s suffrage movement. The Declaration also appeared in Progressives’ arguments about positive liberty in the early twentieth century as well as in Roosevelt’s New Deal. Tsesis’s consideration of the Declaration concludes in the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 60s. From Tsesis’s extensive research, it is clear that the Declaration repeatedly appeared in American political discourse, and Americans wove its equal-rights claims into the fabric of these political transformations.
Tsesis’s main point is clear and convincing: that the assertions by the American people, generation by generation, have made the Declaration more than a mere legal brief for independence. By examining the life of the Declaration after the Revolution, Tsesis seeks to complement classic studies of the document’s philosophical underpinnings, such as Carl Becker’s foundational work, The Declaration of Independence: A Study in the History of Political Ideals (1922). Tsesis’s project similarly runs parallel with David Armitage’s essay on the text’s reception and influence beyond the United States in The Declaration of Independence: A Global History (2007). His work also extends Pauline Maier’s inquiry into how the Revolutionary generation shaped the Declaration in American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence (1997). For Liberty and Equality should be of interest to legal historians, political and social historians, and students of American history and political transformation more broadly.
Tsesis has mined a massive amount of historical evidence to reveal references to the Declaration of Independence across American history. However, his findings require further explanation and attention to potential changes across time. In Tsesis’s presentation, comments about the Declaration by historical actors sound the same note across decades and disparate political debates, regardless of changing contexts. He does not differentiate between when the Declaration inspired political action and when people simply used the Declaration as a rhetorical device to make their political claims recognizable and justifiable.
The most problematic example of this aspect of the book appears when Tsesis shows but does not interrogate how partisans on opposite sides of conflicts—the antebellum sectional conflict, the Civil War, and the civil rights struggle—simultaneously wielded the Declaration in their irreconcilable arguments. Secessionists and Confederates, for instance, used the Declaration’s assertions about the consent of the governed, while Lincoln and his Republicans insisted on the Declaration’s assertions of equal and inherent rights. Tsesis clearly shows both arguments, but seems uninterested in explaining the ideas of those who have found themselves on the wrong side of the arc of history.
Similarly, the Declaration’s relationship with the U.S. Constitution is understandably paramount for Tsesis. Consequently, he makes only limited analytic connections with other rights-asserting texts such as the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, the British Parliament’s acts to abolish slavery, or the United Nations’ Declaration of Human Rights. His insistence on a stable and unchanging meaning of the American Declaration of Independence leaves these potential intellectual and political relationships underexamined.
Overall, Tsesis is more interested in the consistent presence of the Declaration in American political debates than in digging into the particularities of its historical deployment—though his book overflows with factual details and colorful anecdotes. This points to his book’s ultimate purpose. This book does not provide deep analysis of what disparate people thought and did about their historical moments; rather, it welds evidence into a single narrative about the ongoing political value of the Declaration of Independence for constitutional interpretation. This is a legal argument, however, and not a historical one. For Liberty and Equality implicitly looks for a usable past in the Declaration, joining other Americans, left and right, who connect history with the present. Though his project is not at all polemical and he explicitly leaves contemporary politics aside, Tsesis offers a law professor’s sympathetic bookend to Jill Lepore’s The Whites of their Eyes: The Tea Party’s Revolution and the Battle over American History (2010). (For his thoughts on how to apply the Declaration’s call for liberty and equality to contemporary constitutional arguments, see his 2012 essay “Self-Government and the Declaration of Independence,” in the Cornell Law Review).
Despite these reservations that Tsesis explore further what historical actors meant when they referenced the Declaration and dig into the irreconcilable interpretations of the Declaration by opposing factions, his main point holds: the Declaration of Independence has consistently appeared in political debates across the arc of American history. It is precisely these uses by Americans across time that have ensured that Jefferson’s assertions about equality and liberty have risen above mere “glittering generalities.”
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John Ruddiman. Review of Tsesis, Alexander, For Liberty and Equality: The Life and Times of the Declaration of Independence.
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