Self-Evident Truths: Contesting Equal Rights from the Revolution to the Civil War

Self-Evident Truths: Contesting Equal Rights from the Revolution to the Civil War 1014 The Journal of American History March 2018 Self-Evident Truths: Contesting Equal Rights “hallowed” with good cause in a countr-y pop from the Revolution to the Civil War. By Rich- ulated largely by propertyless immigrants who ard D. Brown. (New Haven: Yale University came—with the notable exception of slaves— Press, 2017. xii, 387 pp. $40.00.) with hopes of rising out of poverty and thus el - evating their social position and political rights Self-Evident Truths is a rewarding volume— (both of which were tied to ownership of - prop carefully written, balanced, and well d - ocu erty). Property rights were thus seen as the mented. It chronicles the story of equal rights foundation of individual liberty, even if they from the Declaration of Independence to the resulted in differences of wealth. True, these Civil War. The general facts are familiar but rights ultimately created privileged elites, but Richard D. Brown offers a new perspective the aversion to such elites was counterbalanced by infusing them with a wealth of info - rma by a deep-seated cultural belief that achiev - e tion from court records. Because courts were ment through merit, not through privilege, laboratories where such issues were contested was open to everyone. Ordinary people were and defined, he provides valuable insights into not driven by a covetous “commitment to the the fits and starts by which equal rights forged pursuit and accumulation of wealth” but by a ahead in the young Republic. Thankfully, the desire to better their condition, the same social author does not dwell on presentist questions: aspiration that drove them to demand equal Did the founders misrepresent their tr -ue be rights (p. 310). This is why economic collec - liefs when claiming that “all men are born tivism such as that of the Levellers in England equal”? Or did they betray their own values? never gained ground in America. Instead, he sets his sights on excluded groups Brown’s account leaves us with a sense that and illuminates their struggles to obtain full the true significance of the declaration - ’s en rights. The framework that holds the na -rra dorsement of equality—whether it was an un - tive together rests on the assumption that the intended consequence or not—lay in pr - ovid Declaration of Independence articulated an ing a language of rights that sanctioned the ideal that was then followed by multifarious claims of the excluded. attempts to realize it. Brown breaks down his analysis into sections on equality in religion, Michal Jan Rozbicki citizenship, race, gender, class, and wealth— Saint Louis University St. Louis, Missouri vivid prisms through which readers witness how tensions between principle and reality doi: 10.1093/jahist/jax458 played out in social and legal praxis. Brown acknowledges that the progress of The Latino Nineteenth Century . Ed. by Rod- equal rights was not just a function of im - rigo Lazo and Jesse Alemán. (New York: plementing an ideal. For instance, he rightly New York University Press, 2016. xii, 375 pp. shows that religious liberty, the first sphere of Cloth, $89.00. Paper, $30.00.) public life where equality crystallized, was also the result of denominational pluralism and the This critical anthology, edited by Rodrigo political need to accommodate it by eliminat - Lazo and Jesse Alemán, sets out to inco -rpo ing sectarian privileges. However, if one looks rate Latino nineteenth-century litera-ry pro at this issue more hermeneutically, such pr - og duction into the corpus of American literature ress surely involved an extension of the mean- by providing essays on Latino works that have ing of rights, not just overcoming sociocultural been “buried” by English-language literature, obstacles to an already-modern and already- as Alemán argues in the book ’s preface (p. vii). egalitarian meaning he suggests resided in the The anthology includes essays that focus on declaration. By the same token, his argument that equal neglected writings by people of Latin Ameri - can descent who became short-term or long- rights were slow to spread because “Ameri - term residents of the United States. Many of cans showed little interest in challenging the hallowed hereditary right to property” looks these Latin American writers, though r - esid rather tame (p. 309). Property rights were ing in the United States, continued to focus Downloaded from https://academic.oup.com/jah/article-abstract/104/4/1014/4932635 by Ed 'DeepDyve' Gillespie user on 16 March 2018 http://www.deepdyve.com/assets/images/DeepDyve-Logo-lg.png The Journal of American History Oxford University Press

Self-Evident Truths: Contesting Equal Rights from the Revolution to the Civil War

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© The Author 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Organization of American Historians. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: journals.permissions@oup.com.
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Abstract

1014 The Journal of American History March 2018 Self-Evident Truths: Contesting Equal Rights “hallowed” with good cause in a countr-y pop from the Revolution to the Civil War. By Rich- ulated largely by propertyless immigrants who ard D. Brown. (New Haven: Yale University came—with the notable exception of slaves— Press, 2017. xii, 387 pp. $40.00.) with hopes of rising out of poverty and thus el - evating their social position and political rights Self-Evident Truths is a rewarding volume— (both of which were tied to ownership of - prop carefully written, balanced, and well d - ocu erty). Property rights were thus seen as the mented. It chronicles the story of equal rights foundation of individual liberty, even if they from the Declaration of Independence to the resulted in differences of wealth. True, these Civil War. The general facts are familiar but rights ultimately created privileged elites, but Richard D. Brown offers a new perspective the aversion to such elites was counterbalanced by infusing them with a wealth of info - rma by a deep-seated cultural belief that achiev - e tion from court records. Because courts were ment through merit, not through privilege, laboratories where such issues were contested was open to everyone. Ordinary people were and defined, he provides valuable insights into not driven by a covetous “commitment to the the fits and starts by which equal rights forged pursuit and accumulation of wealth” but by a ahead in the young Republic. Thankfully, the desire to better their condition, the same social author does not dwell on presentist questions: aspiration that drove them to demand equal Did the founders misrepresent their tr -ue be rights (p. 310). This is why economic collec - liefs when claiming that “all men are born tivism such as that of the Levellers in England equal”? Or did they betray their own values? never gained ground in America. Instead, he sets his sights on excluded groups Brown’s account leaves us with a sense that and illuminates their struggles to obtain full the true significance of the declaration - ’s en rights. The framework that holds the na -rra dorsement of equality—whether it was an un - tive together rests on the assumption that the intended consequence or not—lay in pr - ovid Declaration of Independence articulated an ing a language of rights that sanctioned the ideal that was then followed by multifarious claims of the excluded. attempts to realize it. Brown breaks down his analysis into sections on equality in religion, Michal Jan Rozbicki citizenship, race, gender, class, and wealth— Saint Louis University St. Louis, Missouri vivid prisms through which readers witness how tensions between principle and reality doi: 10.1093/jahist/jax458 played out in social and legal praxis. Brown acknowledges that the progress of The Latino Nineteenth Century . Ed. by Rod- equal rights was not just a function of im - rigo Lazo and Jesse Alemán. (New York: plementing an ideal. For instance, he rightly New York University Press, 2016. xii, 375 pp. shows that religious liberty, the first sphere of Cloth, $89.00. Paper, $30.00.) public life where equality crystallized, was also the result of denominational pluralism and the This critical anthology, edited by Rodrigo political need to accommodate it by eliminat - Lazo and Jesse Alemán, sets out to inco -rpo ing sectarian privileges. However, if one looks rate Latino nineteenth-century litera-ry pro at this issue more hermeneutically, such pr - og duction into the corpus of American literature ress surely involved an extension of the mean- by providing essays on Latino works that have ing of rights, not just overcoming sociocultural been “buried” by English-language literature, obstacles to an already-modern and already- as Alemán argues in the book ’s preface (p. vii). egalitarian meaning he suggests resided in the The anthology includes essays that focus on declaration. By the same token, his argument that equal neglected writings by people of Latin Ameri - can descent who became short-term or long- rights were slow to spread because “Ameri - term residents of the United States. Many of cans showed little interest in challenging the hallowed hereditary right to property” looks these Latin American writers, though r - esid rather tame (p. 309). Property rights were ing in the United States, continued to focus Downloaded from https://academic.oup.com/jah/article-abstract/104/4/1014/4932635 by Ed 'DeepDyve' Gillespie user on 16 March 2018

Journal

The Journal of American HistoryOxford University Press

Published: Mar 1, 2018

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