In actual practice, it has been far from self-evident in America that all men—all people—are created equal.
It should come as no surprise to historically minded readers that civil rights have not been a given in the United States: first there was the matter of slavery, then the lack of suffrage for women, and then a legacy of oppression of minorities of various descriptions. Some of this ongoing struggle, suggests Brown (Emeritus, History/Univ. of Connecticut; The Strength of a People: The Idea of an Informed Citizenry in America, 1650-1870, 1996, etc.), can be charted to the various constitutions and statutes at play in a complex negotiation of states’ rights and also to the fact that throughout history, “the ways Americans thought and acted regarding race and rights could be ambiguous and fluid.” The Enlightenment ideal of natural equality, of those self-evident truths and inalienable rights, did not always meet well with ground-tested reality in a land of propertied insiders and disenfranchised outsiders: Native Americans, enslaved and free blacks, women. As Brown charts it, some of the first stirrings of the idea of equality played out on the field of religion, as British anti-Catholicism gave way to religious freedom. “Revolutionary leaders,” writes the author, “recognized that if they grasped religious privilege too tightly they might doom their cause.” Even if this tolerance had an expedient function—those leaders hoped to win over French Catholic Canada to their cause—it opened the door to decades of contested ideologies concerning race and what was bound up in it, from ideas of the “aristocracy of color” to arguments over property rights, including human property. Brown’s narrative is densely researched but lucidly written, and it contains many revealing asides that by themselves would be oddments—the note, for instance, that in the revolutionary era, infanticide was “the sole crime for which more white women suffered death than women of color.”
A valuable contribution to the history of the early republic and to the scholarly literature of civil rights.