What does the Declaration of Independence declare? This seminar investigates the origins, meanings, and contested legacies of one of the most consequential political documents in world history. What did the Declaration's language of equality, liberty, and rights mean to its authors and earliest readers? How and why have understandings of the document changed over time? And what place do the words and ideals of the Declaration hold now, nearly 250 years later? We’ll start by examining the drafting, circulation, and reception of the text in the age of the American Revolution, looking especially at the way in which a growing group of black and white activists in the late eighteenth century seized on the claim that “all men are created equal” to argue against slavery. We’ll then survey some of the turning points in the life of the document, including the deployment of the Declaration in arguments about the rights of women and enslaved peoples in antebellum America; the changing meaning of the Declaration in the era of Southern secession, the Civil War, and Emancipation; the place and promise of the Declaration in contests over human rights and civil rights in the twentieth century; and the significance of the document in our own time.
This seminar is scheduled alongside the Newberry’s exhibition, A Show of Hands: 500 Years of the Art and Technology of Handwriting (December 18, 2020-March 3, 2021).