“Maturity. Nothing stays the same,” says criminal justice activist Hassan Bennett when asked how he explains that “We the People” isn’t just for white Americans, but that it’s also for black Americans too.
“When we look at this document and the founding documents of the country, and people say ‘it doesn’t apply to us’…it’s about maturing as a country. Things that are bad or rights that appear to be violated, we may find that more rights need to be in print later on. The Constitution doesn’t prevent that.”
In a discussion sponsored by Philadelphia250, the city’s committee to plan for the American semiquincentennial in 2026, Bennet was joined by Harvard history and politics professor Danielle Allen.
“There were voices in 1776 who were arguing against slavery,” explains Allen, elaborating on themes in her book Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality. The Declaration was not a founding document of American racism, as some writers have claimed, but was in fact the opposite. In a world ruled by inequality and white supremacy, the Declaration set in motion a movement for equality and civil rights that spread across the globe and continues to the present day.
And that movement began almost as soon as the ink was dry on the parchment in Independence Hall, says Allen:
In fact, the first people to use the text of the Declaration of Independence for purposes other than independence itself were abolitionists. Most importantly a free African American in Boston in 1777 drew on that important second sentence in the Declaration of Independence about “self-evident truths” to put a petition to the Massachusetts General Assembly for the end of enslavement.
The abolition effort then started to expand during the Revolutionary War. By 1783, several northern states had already passed emancipation. “By 1776, abolitionism was already crystallizing and the Declaration of Independence helped it to do that,” says Allen.
The Declaration was intentionally created to be abolition-ready, as Allen explains. The founders’ “starter set of rights” — not all inclusive but just a suggestion of the kinds of rights inherent to Americans — were life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. But an early draft of the Declaration written by Thomas Jefferson included “property” instead of “happiness.” At the time, property was closely tied to slavery. Understanding this, Jefferson’s colleagues asked for an edit.
When Congress voted to pass the final text, by purposely leaving “property” out of the document, the founders were leaving space for abolition to happen in the future.
America not Founded on White Supremacy
“The American Founding was good, right, and exceptional in its principles and structures,” agrees Lincoln scholar and historian of slavery and race Lucas Morel.
In “America Wasn’t Founded on White Supremacy,” Morel takes issue with critics of the founding fathers who claim that America was founded on white supremacy, especially the recent series of articles on American history and slavery from the New York Times, the 1619 Project.
The flagship article in the “1619” series, “Our Democracy’s Founding Ideals were False When They Were Written. Black Americans have Fought to Make Them True,” by Nikole Hannah-Jones, does a service by putting a spotlight on the contributions of black Americans to realizing the promise of freedom and equality, writes Morel.
But for Morel, Hannah-Jones inaccurately rejects the work of the white founders, work that made the freedom struggle waged by black Americans possible in the first place.
Morel wants to revise American history, but to be more inclusive, not less: “What we need is a more capacious revision of American history—one that incorporates the heroic participation and fealty of black Americans while also acknowledging the Founders’ efforts to establish a free society in a land accustomed to racial slavery.”
Morel thinks that we need to get that history right, to set an example to solve today’s racial problems. Black patriots and white patriots will make progress by working together based on common American principles, rather than working separately as groups defined first and foremost by their race:
As President Bill Clinton (echoing Dwight Eisenhower) said in his First Inaugural Address: “There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured by what is right with America.” If Americans of all races learn that the Spirit of ’76 is the better angel of our political nature, and not some demon to be exorcised, then we can reclaim our common political heritage. Only then can diverse Americans have a reasonable hope for unity even as we debate the means by which we seek to secure the common good.
Is there a Place for Black Patriotism?
A group of black and white scholars and community activists behind the 1776 Unites campaign agrees with this approach. Another response to the 1619 Project, the group of history scholars and history buffs argues that Americans will make more progress on race by coming together in the spirit of ’76 than arguing with each other in the divisive spirit of 1619, the year that the first slaves landed in Jamestown.
As its website explains,
“1776” is an assembly of independent voices who uphold our country’s authentic founding virtues and values and challenge those who assert America is forever defined by its past failures, such as slavery. We seek to offer alternative perspectives that celebrate the progress America has made on delivering its promise of equality and opportunity and highlight the resilience of its people. Our focus is on solving problems.
We do this in the spirit of 1776, the date of America’s true founding.
Members of 1776 Unites include Clarence Page, longtime columnist for the Chicago Tribune and TV commentator, along with professors of American history who’ve focused on racial issues. The group appears to lean conservative, and their articles and videos seem to hew more to Booker T. Washington’s philosophy of black uplift than to the black nationalism of Malcom X.
But in a time when discussion about race seems to be dominated by the approach of the 1619 Project that the United States is a fundamentally racist country, it’s worth considering an alternate view.
What if America was actually the world’s first explicitly anti-racist country?
The United States was founded in the 18th century, a time when three out of every four people living on earth were bound to some system of forced labor — slavery, indenture, serfdom, and even traditional male-dominated family structure. In a world where subservience was the norm and freedom was the exception, the founders claiming it was “self evident” that “all men are created equal” was a pretty radical thing to do.
As Page concludes in his article about embracing black patriotism,
It may be a cliché these days to note that our differences should not be allowed to stand in the way of what we share in common, but too often they still do. We must find ways to appreciate the contributions that our diverse population contributes to American life. We need to study not only the atrocities of U.S. history but also America’s magnificent capacity for self-improvement as we seek the tools and knowledge to help us face our shared future with new hope — together.