Compromise vs. Principle: Can the Declaration Develop?
Some thoughts by Dr. Jessie Fields
Studying the development and formation of the early documents of our country as Dr. Danielle Allen does in her exceptionally revealing and accessible book, Our Declaration, for me exposes the roots of what is a very deep and long term historical flaw in our democracy: factional compromise by political leaders that leaves no room for ordinary people to come together and develop new approaches.
We know that both the founding documents of America: the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution compromised on the question of slavery. The compromise of “the pursuit of happiness” rather than “property” in the Declaration was a victory for the anti-slavery faction. The removal of Thomas Jefferson’s strongly worded condemnation of slavery from the final version of the Declaration was a victory for the pro-slavery forces in the country.
During the abolitionist movement African American leaders such as Frederick Douglass argued that the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were anti-slavery documents, others such as William Lloyd Garrison argued that these documents were pro-slavery. A very heated and consequential debate took place over this question and led to many abolitionists participating in the formation of independent anti-slavery parties such as the Liberty Party. Diverse independent parties of small farmers, abolitionists, free soilers, “Know Nothing Party” members, and free Blacks eventually became wholly subsumed under the Republican Party and the Democratic Party dominated the slave holding states.
The tug of war of divided factions pulling for their respective interests has become calcified in the structure of the two major parties. Partisan interests and winning at all costs have become the dominant features of American politics in a stagnant top down system that cannot address the social and economic crisis we face.
The independent political movement is growing to take on the task of transforming our political process so that we the people can develop our democracy and create new ways of coming together.
We might discuss with Dr. Allen what she thinks about the question of whether those compromises on slavery weakened the integrity of the Declaration as a document that is fundamentally based on linking equality and freedom.