Allison Horrocks’ recent post on the problems with framing the history of HBCUs as “choice,” and Mary Mahoney’s trenchant reply that “freedom of choice offers neither freedom nor choice” are good reminders that the language of American rights and values is complex, confusing, and stretchy. It always has been, of course, and historians have long worked to understand how people in the past reconciled stated values and the realities of American culture.
Key to this has been that bedeviling phrase “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…” Quoting it earnestly seems wildly inappropriate, but politicians continue to use it as a weapon, implying that if equality is a stated value of our culture, it must already exist, reframing continuing equal rights claims as special interest groups demanding special privileges. But it’s just as often glibly framed as meaningless propaganda wielded by colonial elites to further their own ends.
Richard Brown’s new book Self-Evident Truths: Contesting Equal Rights from the Revolution to the Civil War approaches these words, their authors, and the society that produced and grappled with them with the explicit goal of examining how Americans at the time reconciled the paradox. Examining how American frameworks of gender, race, ethnicity, social class, religion, and national origin were shaped by this idea of equal rights, he argues that this language of rights was neither empty rhetoric nor earnest, self-evident truth.
Cards on the table: Brown was my dissertation adviser, and I have heard much about this book as he wrote it. I just got my copy and haven’t read it yet, but I wanted to share it because I heard him speak on it this week, and he left the audience with a provocative argument about the possibility of equal rights ever becoming uncontested.
He argued that the United States was founded on two principles. First, all men are created equal. Second, that heritable private property is absolutely necessary for the enjoyment of individual rights. While not reducing all issues of inequality to class, he said that these two rights were both fundamental to American culture and ultimately unreconcilable. Heritable property, he argues, provided “a structural impediment to the full realization of equal rights” that few in the period concerned were ready to grapple with.
Brown’s book examines how this played out in the criminal justice system, in education, in situations of intimate partner violence, and in Robert Morris’ lavish cell in debtors’ prison. Knowing that many of our readers are interested in how these places are still sites of contestation, it seemed appropriate to bring this new work to your attention. [I am not getting any commission for this!]