Dred Scott has been mentioned in the news again, in connection to the Louisiana legislature last month. A bill introduced by state Rep. Valarie Hodges (R) would have required school students to recite a passage from the preamble to the Declaration of Independence on a daily basis. It was withdrawn and tabled after opposition from two state representatives.
I was curious to know who objected to the words all men are created equal—and why. The leading voice of dissent was Rep. Barbara Norton (D), and I had to read several reports before finding some answers to my questions.
First I read a Forbes article, which laid out the who, what, where, and when—but not the why. As quoted, Norton's complaint and argument were hard to understand:
One thing I do know is, all men are not created equal. . . . When I think back in 1776, July the 4th, African-Americans were slaves, and for you to bring a bill to request that our children will recite the Declaration, I think is a little bit unfair to us to ask those children to recite something that's not the truth.Barbara Norton
The Declaration of Independence is not the truth? Surely a state representative knows the difference between an ideal and a reality—right? Possibly, I thought, her real intent was obscured by her confusing syntax and weak delivery.
Clicking on links within the article, I learned more at the website of the Independent Journal, which added this part of Norton's argument:
In 1776, Dr. King was not even born. African-Americans were in slavery, so since they were in slavery, the Declaration of Independence say we are 'all created equal,' we were not created equal because in 1776, July the 4th, I nor you nor any of us were born, nor was Dr. King born, so we were in slavery, and to have our children repeat again and again documents that were not even validated, I don't think that that's fair.Barbara Norton
This was singularly unenlightening, only adding to my confusion. What had Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to do with this? I later learned that Rep. Hodges had invoked Dr. King's praise of the Declaration of Independence, but still, it's unclear why his birth is tangled up with 18th-century slavery. Besides, being enslaved doesn't establish that we aren't created equally, just that we aren't treated equally. And documents not being validated—what does that mean?
I was leaning toward the conclusion that Rep. Norton lacked the ability to make a cogent argument; whether or not she actually had one still intrigued me. It seemed plausible that the reporting on Norton's argument was biased, especially since the article's wrap-up merely added a vague and belligerent call to action, quoting from "Fox and Friends":
For her [Norton] to be attacking the Declaration of Independence, that is attacking liberty, that is attacking freedom. People should not let her get away with this.Deneen Borelli
This notion that we cannot criticize our Constitution or government without being unpatriotic is another red herring, adding nothing but vitriol.
Still seeking clarification about Norton's position on this matter, I wound up at the Breitbart website, whose article interpreted Norton's statements as an argument "that school children should not be required to recite words that were written during a time in history when slavery was prevalent." That's clear, but I'm not sure that's what the Representative was actually saying, or trying to say. If indeed that was part of her argument, why didn't someone point out the illogic of abandoning ideals simply because we fail to live up to them?
Illumination was finally shed by Rep. Pat Smith (D), who sided with Norton and described how the Declaration of Independence was used against millions of black citizens in so-called "voter eligibility" tests:
They [blacks registering to vote] had to recite this [the Declaration] at a poll place in order to be able to vote. That was unconscionable that individuals could not vote without having to repeat parts of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. That was a requirement by the southern states. It was used against them.Pat Smith
Now, that's an argument I can make sense of. Up until reading this paragraph, I was not taking into account this unsavory piece of our history. But I could see Rep. Smith's point, that for some people, reciting the Declaration of Independence carried this taint from a time in history when the words of the Declaration were used to disenfranchise citizens. Moreover, I read on at The Times Picayune and learned that Norton offered an amendment to this bill that proposed students recite instead from the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, which grants citizenship and equal protection to those born in this country—a seemingly reasonable and justifiable alternative.
Yet Rep. Hodges chose to withdraw the bill and table it, without hearing argument on Rep. Norton's amendment (or anyone else's). So my final question became: are these people who are interested in educating students in history and civics, or are they using the education of children for a perverted aim?
This episode is a terrible example of democracy in action, reflecting badly on our elected representatives and our journalists. Maybe I shouldn't be spending time trying to parse this poorly argued debate, but I'm motivated by something disturbing: the prevalence of rhetoric that is purely reactionary, steeped in ignorance, expressed in politics, with real consequences that are usually detrimental to citizens.
The take-away lesson for me is that we Americans need better education. We need to learn to think more comprehensively and critically, and we need to learn to articulate our positions in a clear and unambiguous manner.
We don't need to be eloquent; we just need to be honest. As Dred Scott said in Speak Right On:
Sure 'nough, freedom's skinny. Skinny and sickly and weak. But I reckon there may yet be ways to feed it and fatten it and make it grow strong.Dred Scott, Speak Right On (p. 230)