The Declaration of Independence

If a government no longer provides rights and safety to the people, the people can and should end relationships with that government. Some of the southern succession documents deliberately echoed the Declaration's initial language, and followed up with lists of grievances that echoed in style and substance the older complaints against Britain. An address by Tennessee Governor Isham Harris borrows more fully than most. As the Declaration justifies rebellion as proper when government violates the rights of the people, the links between a "states rights" argument and one based on the Declaration of Independence become obvious. Note, however, that Harris chose not to quote the "all men are created equal" line.

But unfortunate as this may be, I am nevertheless encouraged with the belief that we are at last, practically, a united people. Whatever differences may have heretofore existed amongst us, growing out of party divisions, as to the right of Secession as a Constitutional remedy against Federal usurpation, all admit the moral right asserted by our fathers, of each and every people to resist wrong, and to maintain their liberties by whatever means may be necessary; 'that Governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, and that whenever any form of government becomes destructive of the ends for which it was created, it is the right of the people to alter and abolish it, and to institute a new government, laying its foundation on such principles, and organizing its powers in such form as shall to them seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.' Standing by this common sentiment, with the bloody and tyrannical policy of the Presidential usurper fully before us; in the face of his hordes of armed soldiery, marching to the work of Southern subjugation; the people of the proud Commonwealth of Tennessee - true to their honor, true to the great principles of free institutions, true to the lessons of their fathers, and true to their brethren of the South, the subjects of a common oppression - have united, almost with one voice, in declaring their fixed resolve to resist the tyrant; and in pledging their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor to the maintenance of their rights, and the rights of their sister States of the South.

Lincoln's First Inaugural is in part a rebuttal of southern invocations of the Declaration of Independence. Lincoln repeats campaign promises that he would respect state's rights which southerners anticipated he would brake, and indeed the south to a great degree succeeded from the union in anticipation that these campaign promises would be broken. Of course, by the time the Civil War was ended, Honest Abe's promises had indeed proven worthless.

Those who nominated and elected me did so with full knowledge that I had made this and many similar declarations and had never recanted them; and more than this, they placed in the platform for my acceptance, and as a law to themselves and to me, the clear and emphatic resolution which I now read: Resolved, That the maintenance inviolate of the rights of the States, and especially the right of each State to order and control its own domestic institutions according to its own judgment exclusively, is essential to that balance of power on which the perfection and endurance of our political fabric depend; and we denounce the lawless invasion by armed force of the soil of any State or Territory, no matter what pretext, as among the gravest of crimes.

Of course, if the southerners were apt to quote "Governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed", the northern abolitionists were at least as fond of "all men are created equal". Abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison in a 1854 speech leaves no doubt of his position.

I am a believer in that portion of the Declaration of American Independence in which it is set forth, as among self-evident truths, "that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." Hence, I am an abolitionist. Hence, I cannot but regard oppression in every form - and most of all, that which turns a man into a thing - with indignation and abhorrence. Not to cherish these feelings would be recreancy to principle. They who desire me to be dumb on the subject of slavery, unless I will open my mouth in its defense, ask me to give the lie to my professions, to degrade my manhood, and to stain my soul. I will not be a liar, a poltroon, or a hypocrite, to accommodate any party, to gratify any sect, to escape any odium or peril, to save any interest, to preserve any institution, or to promote any object. Convince me that one man may rightfully make another man his slave, and I will no longer subscribe to the Declaration of Independence. Convince me that liberty is not the inalienable birthright of every human being, of whatever complexion or clime, and I will give that instrument to the consuming fire. I do not know how to espouse freedom and slavery together. I do not know how to worship God and Mammon at the same time. If other men choose to go upon all fours, I choose to stand erect, as God designed every man to stand. If, practically falsifying its heaven-attested principles, this nation denounces me for refusing to imitate its example, then, adhering all the more tenaciously to those principles, I will not cease to rebuke it for its guilty inconsistency. Numerically, the contest may be an unequal one, for the time being; but the author of liberty and the source of justice, the adorable God, is more than multitudinous, and he will defend the right. My crime is that I will not go with the multitude to do evil. My singularity is that when I say that freedom is of God and slavery is of the devil, I mean just what I say. My fanaticism is that I insist on the American people abolishing slavery or ceasing to prate of the rights of man…

Thomas Jefferson, who penned the line "all men are created equal" was a southerner and a slave owner. If one truly respects the intent of the founding fathers, one has to consider that Jefferson in saying "all men are created equal" was likely referring only to white male humans, not really to "all men" in the modern sense. A fellow southerner, Jefferson Davis, in his speech taking leave of the US Senate, clarifies the meaning of "all men are created equal".

It has been a conviction of pressing necessity, it has been a belief that we are to be deprived in the Union of the rights which our fathers bequeathed to us, which has brought Mississippi into her present decision. She has heard proclaimed the theory that all men are created free and equal, and this made the basis of an attack upon her social institutions; and the sacred Declaration of Independence has been invoked to maintain the position of the equality of the races. That Declaration of Independence is to be construed by the circumstances and purposes for which it was made. The communities were declaring their independence; the people of those communities were asserting that no man was born - to use the language of Mr. Jefferson - booted and spurred to ride over the rest of mankind; that men were created equal - meaning the men of the political community; that there were no classes by which power and place descended to families, but that all stations were equally within the grasp of each member of the body politic. These were the great principles they announced; these were the purposes for which they made their declaration; these were the end to which their enunciation was directed. They have no reference to the slave; else, how happened it that among the items of arraignment made against George II was that he endeavored to do just what the North had been endeavoring of late to do - to stir up insurrection among our slaves? Had the Declaration announced that the Negroes were free and equal, how was the prince to be arraigned for stirring up insurrection among them? And how was this to be enumerated among the high crimes which caused the colonies to sever their connection with the mother country? When our Constitution was formed, the same idea was rendered more palpable, for there we find provision made for that very class of persons as property; they were not put upon the footing of equality with white men - not even upon that of paupers and convicts; but, so far as representation was concerned, were discriminated against as a lower caste, only to be represented in the numerical proportions of three-fifths.

Then, senators, we recur to the compact which binds us together; we recur to the principles upon which our government was founded; and when you deny them, and when you deny to us the right to withdraw from a government which, thus perverted, threatens to be destructive of our rights, we but tread in the path of our fathers when we proclaim our independence, and take the hazard. This is done not in hostility to others, not to injure any section of the country, not even for our own pecuniary benefit; but from the high and solemn motive of defending and protecting the rights we inherited, and which it is our sacred duty to transmit unshorn to our children.

While I prefer to take the words "all men" literally, and even include women, I would otherwise endorse the rest of this speech as being one of the better overall summaries of the over all southern position.