The Declaration of Independence and the Long Struggle for Equality in America: An Introduction

A detail from a copy of the Declaration of Independence published by Peter Timothy in Charleston, South Carolina, August 1776 (Gilder Lehrman Institute, GLC00959)Whatever else the Declaration of Independence encompassed—a proclamation of political sovereignty, an indictment against the King of England, an appeal for allies—its assertion that “all men are created equal” shines as the polestar of American history. Versions of the phrase predate Thomas Jefferson’s usage and he was no doubt influenced in his thinking by the writings of various Enlightenment philosophers: Locke, Montesquieu, Voltaire, and Rousseau, among others. He was not alone. In Common Sense, Thomas Paine wrote about “all men being originally equals.” Weeks before the Declaration of Independence appeared, planter George Mason stated in the Virginia Declaration of Rights that “all men are by nature equally free and independent.” Jefferson likely worked on the Declaration from a draft of the Virginia Declaration that appeared in the Pennsylvania Gazette. In his hands, Mason’s formulation first became “all men are created equal & independent” and then “all men are created equal.”

Generations of Americans have wondered how slaveholders such as Mason and Jefferson could posit the equality of men and yet never free the people they had enslaved. A Doonesbury cartoon by G. B. Trudeau, published on July 4, 1976, exposed the contradiction in ways only a comic could. In the strip, the character Nate reads aloud the Declaration of Independence and Sammy, an enslaved man, wonders, “‘All men are created equal’?! Nate, does that mean what I think it does?” Nate answers, “Probably not, Sammy,” to which Sammy responds, “You mean Jefferson sold us out?”

What seems like inconsistency to us did not seem so to Jefferson and other Revolutionary slaveholders. Perhaps they believed born free of subjugation did not mean some could or should not be enslaved. They certainly feared the presence of free Blacks in America. They were mired in racial attitudes that saw Blacks as inferior and fostered a plantation economy that depended on slave labor. Jefferson understood that slavery was wrong and would destroy the nation, but he felt it was for future generations to deal with the problem.

Petition for freedom from "A Great Number of Blackes" to the Massachusetts Council and the House of Representative, January 1777 (Jeremy Belknap Papers, Massachusetts Historical Society)Although Jefferson did not include enslaved people in his meaning, they themselves did. For example, in January 1777, in a petition to the Massachusetts legislature, a group of enslaved people stated that they “have in Common with all other men a Natural and Unaliable [inalienable] Right to that freedom which the Grat Parent of the Unavers hath Bestowed equalley on all menkind.”[1]

They were not alone, and over time “all men are created equal” became a credo of the abolitionist movement. For example, in 1854, William Lloyd Garrison, editor of the Liberator, proclaimed, “I am a believer in that portion of the Declaration of American Independence in which it is set forth, as among self-evident truths, ‘that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.’ Hence, I am an Abolitionist. Hence, I cannot but regard oppression in every form—and most of all, that which turns a man into a thing—with indignation and abhorrence.”[2]

A pamphlet printing of Frederick Douglass's speech "What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July," "Oration Delivered in Corinthian Hall, Rochester, July 5, 1852" (The Gilder Lehrman Institute, GLC06829)No abolitionist exposed more fully the contradictions between the language of the Declaration and slavery than Frederick Douglass. In his speech “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” delivered on July 5, 1852, to a large audience in Rochester’s Corinthian Hall, Douglass excoriated White Americans for their hypocrisy. He labeled their “shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery,” and denounced celebrations of independence as a sham. He quoted the Declaration and highlighted the inconsistency that despite its eloquence “you hold securely, in a bondage, which according to your own Thomas Jefferson, ‘is worse than ages of that which your fathers rose in rebellion to oppose,’ a seventh part of the inhabitants of your country.” Your country, he emphasized, not his. The United States, he thundered, “is false to the past, false to the present, and solemnly binds herself to be false to the future.”[3]

Women, too, embraced the principle of equality expressed in the Declaration. At a convention at Seneca Falls in 1848, organized by Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton and attended by some men, including Frederick Douglass, a Declaration of Sentiments asserted, “we hold these truths to be self-evident: all men and women are created equal.” Stanton modeled her declaration directly on Jefferson’s and included a list of injuries that men had committed against women.

It would fall to Abraham Lincoln to make the latent idea of equality for all in the Declaration of Independence central to the meaning of America. He praised Jefferson as a man who had “the coolness, forecast, and capacity to introduce into a merely revolutionary document, an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times.”[4] For Lincoln, the Declaration was scripture. At Philadelphia, in 1861, he proclaimed, “I have never had a feeling politically that did not spring from the sentiments embodied in the Declaration of Independence.” 5] The Gettysburg Address in 1863 anchored the United States on the principle that the Founding Fathers in 1776 (“four score and seven years ago”) created a nation “conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” The war would bring an end to slavery and advance the struggle to make the promise of equality tangible and real.

That promise applied not only to color but to class, and in the late nineteenth century the populist movement cited the Declaration in support of its call for regulation and reform. The Omaha Platform, adopted on July 4, 1892, at the Peoples Party Convention, began by invoking the anniversary of the Declaration and appealing to farmers and workers for their cooperation in counteracting a rising social inequality that produced “the two great classes—tramps and millionaires.” Some saw the Omaha platform as a second Declaration of Independence.

The awareness of social inequality surged during the depression of the 1930s when Franklin Delano Roosevelt called for an economic bill of rights that would “assure us equality in the pursuit of happiness.”[6] It is fitting that his final message to the American people was prepared for celebrations of Thomas Jefferson’s birthday.

The words “all men are created equal” would continue to inspire social movements to bring American life into alignment with the axioms expressed in the Declaration. Martin Luther King Jr. considered the Declaration a promissory note for the future. In his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” in response to accusations that he was an extremist, he asked, “Was not Jefferson an extremist?” Standing before the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963, he proclaimed, “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’”

From the moment those words appeared in the Declaration, some Americans have challenged the nation to make them reflect the condition of things. With passage of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, Fifteenth, and Nineteenth Amendments, as well as the civil rights legislation of the 1960s, the country progressed toward greater equality. As long as the ideal exists, so too does the chance of living up to it. Jefferson once said, “I like the dreams of the future better than the history of the past.”[7] We are that future, and the words he wrote are always at the ready to inspire us.

Louis P. Masur is Board of Governors Distinguished Professor of American Studies and History at Rutgers University. His most recent book is The Sum of Our Dreams: A Concise History of America (Oxford University Press, 2020).

[1] Lancaster Hill, Peter Bess, Brister Slenser, Prince Hall, et al., “The Petition of a great number of Negroes who are detained in a state of Slavery,” January 13, 1777. State House in Massachusetts Archives, vol. 212, p. 132.

[2] William Lloyd Garrison, No Compromise with Slavery. An Address Delivered in the Broadway Tabernacle, New York , February 14, 1854 (New York: American Anti-Slavery Society, 1854), p. 5.

[3] Frederick Douglass, Oration, Delivered in Corinthian Hall, Rochester . . . July 5, 1852 (Rochester: Lee, Mann & Co., 1852), pp. 20, 34, and 16.

[4] Abraham Lincoln, Letter to Henry L. Pierce and others, Springfield, Illinois, April 6, 1859.

[5] Abraham Lincoln, Address at Independence Hall, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, February 22, 1861.

[6] Franklin D. Roosevelt, “Economic Bill of Rights,” in the 1944 Annual Message to Congress, January 11, 1944.

[7] Thomas Jefferson, Letter to John Adams, August 1, 1816.

Past Issues

African American Burial Sites in New England from Colonial Times through the Early Twentieth Century

Detail of an eighteenth-century gravestone carved by African American stonecutter Pompe Stevens, God's Little Acre Burial Ground, Newport, Rhode Island (Courtesy of Glenn A. Knoblock)

For most of New England’s history, African Americans have been present. Their history here begins as far back as at least 1629, when enslaved Africans were brought to Massachusetts, African Americans subsequently making significant contributions at all levels of society from colonial times down to the present. Their early history, however, was often denied or forgotten altogether by White scholars who were anxious to keep the issues of slavery and racism under wraps, either uncomfortable or unwilling to acknowledge that it was part of the region’s heritage. But now, that history is being retold by a modern generation of scholars, with new aspects being researched and recovered every year. Indeed, it is not just Black history that is being brought to light, but American history as a whole that is being more comprehensively explored, examined, and, yes, taught.

At first glance to many, the evidence of African American history in the landscape of New England seems to be lacking. In some larger towns and cities, like Boston, Portland, or Hartford, historic Black churches can be found, but in many smaller communities, the historical evidence of a Black presence is seemingly lacking. Or is it? In fact, it is in the region’s many burial grounds and cemeteries, both big and small, that New England’s African American history comes alive. Though it may take a little time and some simple research to discover where these sites may be found, there are many resources to turn to and the results are well worth the effort.

The earliest known burial places for African Americans were in those segregated spaces on private property designated by White slave owners as slave burial grounds or cemeteries. While many such sites have been lost to development over the years, some remain to tell the story of the institution of slavery that was once so prevalent. Most of those remaining are to be found, although often inaccessible, in Rhode Island, the largest of the slave-holding states in the region, where slavery was practiced on a large scale similar to that of the plantation-style economy of the South. But they can be found in other states, too. These early cemeteries for enslaved people are usually distinguished by their simple fieldstone markers that have no writing on them to give the identity of the person buried there. The Langdon Slave Cemetery in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, hidden in plain sight, offers an excellent example of this type of cemetery, established by one of the state’s most influential early families. No records for cemeteries of this type are usually kept, and so the identities of the deceased here are largely unknown. Among the occupants are Hannah, who was bought by the family in 1716, and Pomp, purchased in 1743. These are just two of the enslaved people held by the Langdon family.

Outside of Rhode Island, most of those enslaved were held in much smaller numbers and groupings. Wealthy individuals, including judges, farmers, merchants, and even ministers, who were amongst the largest group of slave owners in colonial America, might hold a single person, or perhaps two or three, in bondage. These individuals were sometimes buried in family cemeteries without an identifying marker, but many were buried in the town burying grounds and cemeteries that were established in every community in New England. Sometimes, as was the tradition in Boston, they were buried close by the burial sites of their masters, and sometimes even within the same family tomb. In many areas, however, segregated spaces within (usually in a far rear section or corner) or adjacent to the town burial ground were set aside for people of color, whether enslaved or free. Of course, town cemeteries usually grew in size down through the years, and a space that was once the rear of the cemetery, over the years became seemingly integrated with the passage of time and changing attitudes. However, an examination of the dates of surrounding gravestones usually reveals the fact that this process took decades to evolve.

The gravestone for Quash Gomer, "a Native of Angola" (d. 1799), in the African section of the Ancient Burying Ground in Wethersfield, Connecticut (Courtesy of Glenn A. Knoblock)Interesting early examples of segregated burials include the graves for Primus (died 1731), a “free Negro,” and Quash Gomer (died 1799), described on his gravestone as “a Native of Angola,” in the African section of the Ancient Burying Ground in Wethersfield, Connecticut. Further north, in Princeton, Massachusetts, there may be found in the Meetinghouse Cemetery the finely carved stones for Flova (died 1778), a “Negro woman Servant,” and Thomas (died 1783), a “negro man servant,” both enslaved by Moses Gill. No matter where one may go to see these sites, the one aspect that will jump out to the viewer is the word “servant” inscribed on the stones, a euphemism for the term “slave,” and perhaps a sign of the conflicted morals of New England slave owners.

Detail of the gravestone for Phillis Stevens and her infant son, Prince (d. 1773), God's Little Acre Burial Ground, Newport, Rhode Island (Courtesy of Glenn A. Knoblock)By far the most prominent example of the early segregated spaces is God’s Little Acre Burial Ground, adjacent to the Common Burying Ground in Newport, Rhode Island. This site is the most significant African American historical site in New England, and one of the most important in all of America, for here are the documented burial sites for about 250 people of color, many enslaved, who lived before 1800. It is a stunning site to visit for several reasons, the most notable being the large number of inscribed gravestones found here that serve to document these early Black lives. Several were carved by an enslaved man named Pompe Stevens, the only known African American stonecutter in New England, while others feature faces with distinctly Black features, the most important and touching being the dual gravestone for Phillis Stevens and her infant son, Prince (died 1773). Once seen, it will never be forgotten. Among the The gravestone for Violet Hammond, "the Wife of Cape Coast James" (d. 1772), God's Little Acre Burial Ground, Newport, Rhode Island (Courtesy of Glenn A. Knoblock)others buried here are Fisherman Cahoone (died 1760), Violet, “the wife of Cape Coast James” (died 1772), and Kedindo Pero, who kept his African name, and his son Adam (died 1748–1749). Whether you visit God’s Little Acre in person, or study the pictures of these gravestones from afar, your perspective on New England history will forever be changed by doing so.

The tradition of segregation within burial grounds was carried on in many locales in New England after the American Revolution and continued well into the twentieth century. In the African American section (once called the “Colored Ground”) of Portland, Maine’s Eastern Cemetery, there may be found the grave of Revolutionary War soldier Lewis Shepard (died 1833), while even in Vermont, where African American burial sites are less prevalent due to the population size, there is the African American section found at the rear of the River Street Cemetery in Woodstock. It is the final resting place for, among others, Civil War veterans Austin and James Hazard. Indeed, even the successful conclusion of the Civil War did not result in an end for segregated burials in New England, as is proven in Hartford, Connecticut’s Old North Cemetery. Here was established a section for Black veterans, many of whom served in the Black regiments raised by the state to join in the fight to end slavery.

Marker commemorating Black patriots in the American Revolution, Old Judea Cemetery, Washington, Connecticut (Courtesy of Glenn A. Knoblock)Finally, while many African American burial spaces have been lost or deliberately destroyed over time, several have been reclaimed and commemorated over the years in ways big and small. In Washington, Connecticut, the Old Judea Cemetery has a simple cast iron marker that reads “Jeff Liberty and his colored Patriots,” likely erected in the early twentieth century, while in Plymouth, Massachusetts, there is the modern granite monument erected at the Parting Ways Cemetery in memory of “Four Negro Slaves” who were given the land on which the cemetery is located in return for their Revolutionary War service. The most notable example, perhaps, of these spaces to be commemorated is the African Burying Ground Memorial Park in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Since colonial days many enslaved and free Blacks were buried on this site, which eventually was taken over by urban growth and destroyed. When remains were discovered by utility workers in 2003, this led to preservation efforts that resulted in the reestablishment of the burying ground as a historic site in 2015. This site, and many others that have been reclaimed or are being reexamined in ongoing initiatives, are exciting examples of the Black history that can be discovered in New England all around us, if only we care to look for it.

Glenn A. Knoblock is the author of more than fifteen books on topics in American history. His recent publications include African American Historic Burial Grounds and Gravesites of New England (McFarland & Company, 2015) and The American Clipper Ship, 1845–1920: A Comprehensive History, with a Listing of Builders and Their Ships (McFarland & Company, 2014). He is a leading military contributor to both the print and online editions of African American National Biography, a joint project of Harvard and Oxford University Press.

Inside the Vault: David Blight Discusses Frederick Douglass Documents

On February 3, 2022, our curators were joined by Dr. David Blight to discuss his favorite Frederick Douglass documents in the Gilder Lehrman Collection. 

Click here to download the slides from the presentation.