The following is an excerpt from “Birth of our America isn’t when you think,” an opinion piece written by Kermit Roosevelt, David Berger Professor for the Administration of Justice at the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School, for The Hill:
When was America born? You’ve probably heard the argument between the adherents of 1619 and 1776, but I suggest a different date: 1863. More specifically, Jan. 1, 1863, when Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation.
How could that be the birth of America? On the conventional understanding, the United States had existed for almost a hundred years by that time, with 15 presidents preceding Lincoln.
My answer is that an America existed, to be sure, but not our America. Maybe, as Lincoln claimed in the Gettysburg Address later in 1863, the Declaration of Independence brought forth a new nation in 1776. (“Maybe” because what the Declaration said it was creating was “free and independent States.”) But it was not this nation.
Why not? Our America is defined by our Constitution and our adherence to certain principles, perhaps most notably equality. We believe that the government should not discriminate unjustly — it should not segregate people by race; it should not enslave them. Those principles are in our Constitution now. But pre-Civil War America did not follow those principles. They were not in its Constitution — slavery was. They were not in the Declaration of Independence — complaints about slave rebellions were.
What about “all men are created equal”? As it was understood in Jefferson’s time, that phrase meant only that in a world without governments, no one had an obligation to obey anyone else. The Declaration went on to develop a theory about where legitimate political authority came from, and when it could be rejected. It was about relationships within a political community and had nothing to say about how that community should treat “outsiders” — like the people enslaved by the men who signed the Declaration. According to the Supreme Court, under the Founders’ Constitution, those people could never become American citizens.
How did we start reading the Declaration differently, so that it condemned slavery? Simple: that was the work of abolitionists, not the Founders… .