America’s Ongoing Struggle for Equal Rights

Close-up of the Declaration of Independence. (Getty Images)
UConn historian Richard D. Brown discusses how the ideal of equal rights has been tested over numerous issues since the Declaration of Independence was signed, and continues to be tested today. 'Our contradictions are built into our political DNA,' he says. (Getty Images)


The ideal of equal rights articulated in the Declaration of Independence was at the core of the founding of the United States on July 4, 1776. Yet the young nation struggled with every form of social inequality, despite the declaration that “all men are created equal.” In a new book, “Self-Evident Truths: Contesting Equal Rights from the Revolution to the Civil War” (Yale University Press 2017), Richard D. Brown, Board of Trustees Distinguished Professor of History Emeritus, traces how the ideal was tested over issues of race and ethnicity, religious freedom, gender and social class, voting rights, and citizenship. He spoke with UConn Today about how some of these issues continue to evolve.

Q. Early in the book, you describe the unalienable rights claimed in the Declaration of Independence as more of an aspiration, a “promise for the future” rather than a guarantee of equal rights. You also note the colonists were looking to declare their rights from the perspective of being Englishmen. Why did they broaden their view of such rights?

A. When they argued they must be liberated from Britain, Patriots believed they must make more than an argument for the rights of Englishmen. Living as they did in the Enlightenment world of Locke, Montesquieu, Rousseau, and Voltaire, they believed a more universal claim was necessary. Enlightenment philosophers of the 18th century had been articulating the rights of man broadly; so moving from the rights of Englishmen to the universal plane appealed to them. And in Pennsylvania, where the Congress met, there was a large German minority with whom “the rights of Englishmen” did not resonate. When Jefferson formulated the Declaration’s universal language, his committee of John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Robert R. Livingston, and Roger Sherman never questioned his words. As to the issue of universal rights of man and woman, based on everything I read, few thought seriously about the rights of women. Of course, Abigail Adams in her now famous private letter of 1776 asserted the rights of women, but the issues she raised were never discussed in the Continental Congress.

Delegates recognized that their statement about the rights of man was truly radical, because they weighed its consequences for slavery. Actually, 73 percent of the signers of the Declaration of Independence were themselves slaveholders. Clearly they had to judge the impact of their “universal” declaration on slavery. The lawyerly argument a Virginian worked out claimed that rights belonged only to people who were in society. Because, they reasoned, slaves were not in society, assertions of natural rights did not, it was argued, challenge slave holding. It’s very important, however, to recognize that in 1776 slavery had not yet been defined racially in law. Slavery was one of several states of unfreedom, some of which (such as apprenticeships and indentured servitude) whites and blacks shared. Moreover, at the time of the Revolution and Constitution, there was also a free African American population. When the Constitution was adopted in 1787-88 there were nearly 60,000 free blacks; and some of them voted on the ratification of the Constitution. Universal white manhood suffrage was not yet a common American policy. Except for Pennsylvania, every state set property requirements for voting. When Congress asserted the unalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, that did not include voting rights. The self-evident truths proclaimed in the Declaration were certainly aspirational; but as the liberalized Pennsylvania suffrage demonstrated, there were significant numbers among elite Patriots who believed those truths possessed broad application.

Q. During this time, women were seen through the prism of their husband’s rights, including how they were treated in courts of law. Why were they denied equal rights?

A. The first fact to consider is coverture, the policy established in English jurisprudence and built into American law. Coverture provides that when a woman marries, her property becomes that of her husband. Her legal status is merged with her husband; and he is the active citizen, so much so that when a woman carried out a criminal act in the presence of her husband, he was responsible and she may be excused. Political rights prior to 1776 and for a long time thereafter were linked to property ownership. Daughters and married women did not own property. Women did develop education and emerge as political actors in the 1800s, especially in relation to temperance, women’s rights, and abolition. But before the Civil War, women’s rights never won majority support in any state.

Q. You discuss early issues focused on immigration, including the Alien Act of 1798, which also touches on people of color, the Native American population, and their denial of equal rights. We seem to continue to have such equality issues today.

A. In Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense,” widely embraced by the Revolutionaries, America was to be an asylum for all mankind. That changed with the French Revolution, which by 1793-94 included anti-Christian ideology, the killing of King Louis XVI, and a murderous political movement to exterminate political enemies. At about the same time the bloody Haitian Revolution – a black uprising justified by universal revolutionary rhetoric – exploded not far from American shores, which was frightening to white people in northern states as well as the South. Many Americans feared people coming in and spreading French radicalism and secularism in the United States. In 1798, there was an Irish uprising against the English and supported by the French, who sent troops to join the Irish rebels. For Federalists, foreigners represented a toxic threat to the United States including atheism, a murderous political movement, the sexual libertinism of the French Revolution, and slave rebellion. The French Revolution divided the Federalists and the Jeffersonian Democrats, who were sympathetic to the French Revolution and vigorously anti-monarchist.

The colonies had always been wide open to immigrants, and a key reason was that the British wanted to increase population so as to develop the economy and trade. As far as England was concerned, the colonies’ domestic arrangements didn’t matter very much. Britain wanted colonies for their commercial value, and increased population meant commercial growth. England itself restricted naturalization. Foreigners couldn’t just come into England and become English subjects; but they could come into the colonies and become English subjects regardless of race or religion. American citizenship laws in the colonial era and later were largely American inventions.

Q. You also note that Thomas Paine said that Europe, not England, was the parent of America, later characterizing America as having always been a multicultural, multiethnic country. Yet in the 21st century, there’s a debate focused on differences in religion and skin color.

A. Early leaders of the United States were clearly in favor of a nation descended from European populations. From the first Naturalization Act in 1790, which enabled any white person to become a citizen, Congress projected the United States as multiethnic and multicultural within the bounds of Europeans. To a large extent that has remained the dominant pattern for the U.S. Two challenges to open European immigration are exceptions: first, in the 1850s in response to the Irish famine migration. Some argued there were too many Irish Catholics coming in and their citizenship should be restricted. But though there was vocal prejudice, no national legislation singled them out. Similarly, when there was a large southern and eastern European immigration of Catholics and Jews between 1890 and 1910, nativists mounted another substantial movement to block this “new” immigration. This resulted in 1921 and 1924 in immigration restriction acts establishing quotas based on keeping America the way it had been. These laws set large quotas for northern Europeans and small quotas for people from eastern and southern Europe. Beginning in the 1880s, there was legislation to exclude Asians, though Asians were not permitted to become citizens until after the Second World War.

The backlash we witness in our own time is based on that same perception of what the United States is and should be – a country of white people of European descent, and anybody who is not of European descent is somehow less American. One fact that has struck me for a long time, but is not in the book, is that when Americans say southerner, the image in their mind is a white southerner, even though blacks in that region are just as much southerners as whites. But American politics and culture have defined southerners as “whites.” Ironically, in South Carolina at the time of the Civil War there were more black southerners than there were white southerners, but the black southerners were mostly slaves who, like free blacks in that state, had no political voice.

Q. It’s interesting to note that states had the authority to regulate religion when the Declaration was being written. How did the debate unfold as the founders moved toward independence?

A. From my perspective, religion is actually the brightest chapter in terms of realizing equal rights. That happened largely because various Protestant groups were so fearful that government would force them into some religion (not their own) that they demanded that government keep its hands off religion. They recognized that in Europe, governments ruled religion; and when they were not forcing submission to a state religion, they were giving state religion privileges. But Americans decided it was best to let people choose and follow their own faith. Certainly there were, and are, efforts to gain preferences. But by the 1830s, religious establishment was dead everywhere. Freedom of religion resulted from a combination of religious beliefs, the commitment to the principle of religious freedom, and democratic politics. When the majority ceased to support any single religion, there could be no religious establishment.

Q. What conclusions did you draw from your extensive research on the promise of equal rights in the Declaration?

A. The most profound conclusion is that America lives with a fundamental and inherent contradiction between individual rights and property rights. There is not exactly a conflict, because Americans regard property rights as integral to individual rights. We believe it is our right to own property and our right to pass our property to our heirs. But these beliefs ensure that so long as we have a system that enshrines those rights, the United States will have tremendous inequality of wealth. And as long as the United States has great inequalities of wealth, Americans’ ability to realize rights will vary depending on wealth. Consequently, the conflict between equal rights and privilege, or whether all Americans enjoy equal rights, is never going to go away. Our contradictions are built into our political DNA.