Starting Points Journal: Justin Dyer & Adam Seagrave on the Founding and Modern Racial Issues

Dorothea Lange, Pledge of Allegiance, 1940s San Francisco

Starting Points Journal: “Our Promissory Note”

By Justin Dyer


“Living downstream from the American founding, we are heirs today to what Martin Luther King, Jr., in his most famous speech, referred to as the ‘promissory note’ implicit in our Declaration of Independence: that ‘all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.’ We have so taken to heart this founding aspiration that even our criticisms of the Republic’s architects are animated by the principles they professed.

What seems obvious about the American founding today – that there was a deep tension between the principle of natural equality and the system of race-based chattel slavery – was obvious to many in the founding era. Few in that generation, however, were able fully to pluck the beams from their own eyes before they endeavored to remove the mote from the eye of King George. ‘That men should pray and fight for their own Freedom and yet keep others in Slavery,’ New York delegate to the Continental Congress, John Jay, lamented, ‘is certainly acting a very inconsistent as well as unjust and perhaps impious part…'”

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Starting Points Journal: “The 4th of July in 2020”

By Stephanie Shonekan and Adam Seagrave


“We have entered the decade of the Declaration of Independence Semiquincentennial with social turmoil similar in magnitude to the fateful 1770s. Simultaneous and intersecting crises in public health, the economy, and race relations have made 2020 feel more like a time to start fresh than a time to celebrate the past. Many Americans find themselves looking around, bewildered and confused, unsure of what’s going on and at a loss to know what do to about it. As Captain Josh Harris of Deadliest Catch aptly put it: ‘There are three types of people in the world—people who watch stuff happen, people who make stuff happen, and people who wonder what the heck just happened.’ Most Americans have found themselves in the third camp at various times during the last six months.

The Americans of 1776 were of the second camp. They made things happen. They built a foundation for constructive and sustainable change that has inspired progressive social transformation in the U.S. ever since. The movement to abolish slavery, the women’s rights movements of the 19th and early 20th centuries, and the African American Civil Rights Movement of the 20th century all relied heavily on the ideas and rhetoric of the Declaration of Independence in justifying themselves and persuading others. The white men who wrote that ‘all men are created equal’ may have been thinking mostly of themselves, but the principle of inherent equality they enunciated has since been explicitly expanded in meaning to include a much wider swath of humanity. When particular concerns relating to certain groups have been overlooked or excluded from the ideals of that Declaration, activists have continued to push for their rights to be heard and recognized as an equal priority in the quest for the full realization of citizenship…”

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Justin DyerJustin Dyer is a Professor of Political Science at the University of Missouri. His research spans the fields of American political development, political philosophy, and constitutional law. He is particularly interested in the interaction between the American political tradition and the perennial philosophy of natural law. Ongoing research projects examine the role of classical and modern natural-law philosophy in early American political thought and constitutional theory.  He is the author or co-author of several books, including C.S. Lewis on Politics and the Natural Law (Cambridge University Press, 2016), Slavery, Abortion, and the Politics of Constitutional Meaning (Cambridge University Press, 2013), and Natural Law and the Antislavery Constitutional Tradition (Cambridge University Press, 2012).

Professor Dyer is a JMC faculty partner.

Learn more about Justin Dyer >>



Adam SeagraveS. Adam Seagrave is an Associate Professor at Arizona State University, as well as Associate Director of the School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership and Associate Director of the Center for Political Thought and Leadership. He holds editorial roles with three journals: American Political Thought (University of Chicago Press), Starting Points, and Compass. Professor Seagrave’s teaching and research focus on American political principles, including both their application in American political history and their antecedents in intellectual history. He holds a doctorate from the University of Notre Dame.

Professor Seagrave is a JMC fellow.

Learn more about S. Adam Seagrave >>



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