Rhetoric vs. Reality on the 4th

Yesterday HCR wrote a short (for her — I typically think her Letters From an American are too long) 4th of July post, reminding us of the most famous words of the Declaration. She immediately recognized that the claim that it was “self-evident” that ”all men are created equal” was a sentiment that only applied to white men and not to the large numbers of blacks, Indians, or women that together formed most of American society at the time. Notwithstanding that contrast with reality, Heather echoed the belief of many historians that the founders were reaching for an ideal and that “America was founded on the radical idea that all men are created equal.”

I’m willing to accept the claim that there was an awareness in the Continental Congress that equality (at least in terms of equal status at birth for white men) was a goal the new nation should claim (especially to distinguish itself from Great Britain)
and should maybe strive towards. The primary sources I have my students read suggest they were already well aware of the problem of slavery in this early convention and the “sectional” positions for and against it in the North and South were beginning to form before the US was even a nation. But so far, the first three paragraphs of the post are similar enough to what one might have seen in history books or 4th of July memorials that I wouldn’t have bothered to comment.

It’s in the fourth paragraph that it goes off the rails a bit, in my opinion. Heather makes a turn and announces, "What the founders declared self-evident was not so clear eighty-seven years later, when southern white men went to war to reshape America into a nation in which African Americans, Indigenous Americans, Chinese, and Irish were locked into a lower status than whites. In that era, equality had become a 'proposition,' rather than 'self-evident.'”

This allows her to claim that the leaders of the Confederacy were trying to change a settled, self-evident truth into a proposition that could be argued. I’m sorry, but this seems to stand in direct contradiction of the reality of the situation in 1861 America, where “African Americans, Indigenous Americans, Chinese, and Irish”
were ”locked into a lower status” than white men. In the South, the North, the East, and the West. Even if we give the Founders the benefit of the doubt and say they held equality as an ideal they wanted the new nation to strive towards, America had not yet become that. Lincoln did not ask in the Gettysburg Address passage Heather quotes whether a nation could be broken by people who disagreed, but whether “any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.” I think the key to his question is, “conceived and dedicated” but not yet achieved.

I’m not going to defend the Confederates at all, but I don’t think they were trying to break away from a nation of freedom and equality to create a new hellscape of slavery and “reshape America into a nation in which certain people are better than others”, as Heather claims. So I don’t think she succeeds in drawing an analogy between then and now: that the “idea of human equality” is an American achievement rather than an ideal and that there’s a new group of evil Confederates who want to undo that reality. While I agree with Lincoln that we should “highly resolve” that the sacrifices of those Americans who fought for union and democracy should not be in vain, I think Heather misses the point. Lincoln’s sentiment is laudable but his history is aspirational, not accurate. I understand why Americans mistake the rhetoric of the past for reality, but why do historians?