- Self-Evident Truths: Contesting Equal Rights from the Revolution to the Civil War by Richard D. Brown
When John Jay combined his efforts with those of James Madison and Alexander Hamilton to support ratification of the proposed Constitution coming out of the Philadelphia Convention, he devoted his first turn as Publius to an argument as patently untrue in 1787 as it is today: Americans were, wrote Jay in The Federalist, Number 2, "one united people—a people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion, attached to the same principles of government," and so on. Surely a strong national union could be built from a citizenry so similar, Jay suggested. Though there were various "orders and denominations of men among us," which he offhandedly conceded there were, nonetheless "we have uniformly been one people[,] each individual citizen everywhere enjoying the same national rights, privileges, and protection." Even if it was something more asserted than lived, there has been what historian Richard Brown calls a "presumption of equal rights" since the earliest days of this nation's history (27). And what Brown sets out to understand in this wide-ranging, insightful, and utterly readable book are the ways that that presumption of equal rights, in itself, has generated contests, challenges, and consequential change in a nation far more diverse than Jay would ever acknowledge.
In many ways, Self-Evident Truths takes the rights talk of the Declaration of Independence as its jumping-off point. And the book does not entirely diverge from the tried-and-true trope of the unfinished Revolution, which, in the standard apologists' version, reads like this: the Founders left many inequalities and injustices unchallenged, but they, sometimes purposefully and sometimes inadvertently, laid the groundwork for those shortcomings to be addressed by future generations. Thomas Jefferson's Declaration did little if anything to confront directly any of a number of forms of persistent inequality—particularly those founded in race and gender—but the use of blanket and inclusive terms in the Revolutionary era's assertions of natural rights and human equality enabled others to expand the scope and scale of the Revolution.
Brown's book offers no simple answers along those lines, and it is no apology. He is clear about the ways that white men in the first half of the [End Page 521] nineteenth century "fended off movements to extend equal rights to people of color and to women as they sought exclusive possession of the benefits of the Revolutionary contagion." Those efforts often took the form of deliberate attempts to develop ideas of "natural inequality according to race and sex." Many turned to biology and nature, Brown writes, in their search for "a theory to justify social stratification" (308). Still, Brown agrees with important elements of those who emphasize the idea of the unfinished Revolution, and his reading is persuasive. His account of how ideas of equality had consequences for the American nation between the Revolution and the Civil War is nuanced, deeply informed by recent scholarship, and grounded in many sections in his own research, particularly his work on how judges and juries handled moments where de jure and de facto conceptions of equality did not exactly square up. Indeed, this reads like a senior scholar's meditation on how to grapple with both the failures and the remarkable accomplishments of the American Revolutionary moment—and with the deeds of later generations who sought variously to contain and to extend the radical potential of 1776.
Self-Evident Truths covers familiar ground in many places. An early chapter on the emergence of ideas of religious equality, for instance, gives an engaging overview of issues like religious tests for political office and state-level disestablishment in the post-Revolutionary era, with few surprises for anyone familiar with the period. The same can be said regarding sections on the Alien and Sedition Acts, on Dred Scott, on Seneca Falls. One of the reasons Brown is so persuasive in...