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‘All Men are Created Equal’? Race and the Declaration of Independence in American Museums

Tom Smith  (@TomEtesonSmith)

The Declaration of Independence, approved on 4 July 1776 by the thirteen colonies which were about to form the United States of America, has returned to the headlines recently after a parchment copy of the iconic document, only the second known to exist, was discovered in the somewhat unlikely surroundings of the West Sussex Record Office. The excitement generated by this discovery on both sides of the Atlantic is testament to the enduring power of the Declaration. It includes some of the most resonant passages of text in modern history, not least the following:

‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.’

However, historians of the United States have for many years sought to unpack these revolutionary ideals, and specifically to point out the contradictions they mask. Long after 1776, America continued to be built in large part upon systems of slavery and campaigns which robbed indigenous peoples of their lives and land, both of which seem to make a mockery of the idea that ‘Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness’ really were available to ‘all men’ (let alone women). Yet the veneration of the United States’ founding fathers and founding documents within American politics and culture continues to be nearly unanimous. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson are both celebrated with imposing monuments close to the halls of power in Washington, DC, while the designs of the founding fathers continue to be a touchstone for political and legal debates.

Within this climate, I’ve found it interesting to see how three museums I’ve recently visited, all of them either newly opened or recently revamped, have presented the Declaration of Independence in new ways. All three, in their own way, offered frameworks in which the founding ideals of the United States could be celebrated, while overtly acknowledging the complexities within the revolutionary project.

The American Revolution Museum at Yorktown, Virginia – the site of the siege which practically brought an end to the Revolutionary War in 1781 – has been very recently reopened having dropped its more dubious former name: the ‘Yorktown Victory Center’. In its new incarnation, it still celebrates the Declaration of Independence and the victory of the Continental Army over the British as representing a revolutionary triumph of democratic principles, but is also careful from the start to frame the American ‘experiment’ as incomplete and ongoing. In particular, it acknowledges prominently the participation of African Americans and Native Americans in the war, hoping for brighter futures which never came.

My next visit was to the beautiful Monticello, the house in the Virginia countryside built by Thomas Jefferson, who was also the main architect of the Declaration of Independence. Since 2015, the information available to visitors has been reoriented to deal with the fact that Monticello was in truth a slave plantation. Jefferson owned over 600 slaves, despite being the man who not only wrote of the equality of all men, but even went so far as to call slavery a ‘moral depravity’. Working with the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (discussed below), the curators at Monticello have sought to shed light on the experience of the enslaved at the house. Jefferson’s deferral of the slavery question is dealt with frequently, and specialized tours attempt recover the stories of those enslaved under him, not least that of Sally Hemings, by whom Jefferson is now widely understood to have fathered six children.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the museum which deals most strikingly and explicitly with the complexities of the Declaration of Independence is the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC, opened in September 2016 to great acclaim and enormous demand (it’s still not easy to get a ticket!). A centrepiece of the museum is an exhibit entitled ‘The Paradox of Liberty’, in which the words of the Declaration pronouncing that ‘all men are created equal’ tower over the viewer, even as they are surrounded by artefacts and stories which show that for many, this did not ring true. The irony is impossible to miss, and the rest of the museum explores the ways in which African American women and men spent decade after decade coming to terms with it, struggling to hold the United States to its founding principles.

Some historians would no doubt say that museum interpretations, especially those at Yorktown and Monticello, still have a tendency to be too kind to the authors of the Declaration of Independence, and that the founding fathers did not truly perceive life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness as privileges which could ever have been extended to all: in their world, ‘all men’ were naturally a rather select group. But shifts in popular historical consciousness often must take place by degrees, and while the museums mentioned above continue at root to celebrate American history and democracy, no-one visiting them could have left without questioning any straightforward preconceptions they may have had about the virtues of the founding fathers. For many, the struggle for the kind of equality promoted in the Declaration has been long, and is ongoing.

Image: Public Domain (see https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:US-original-Declaration-1776.jpg)

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