Richard Brown is Board of Trustees Distinguished Professor of History, Emeritus at the University of Connecticut. This interview is based on his new book, Self-Evident Truths: Contesting Equal Rights from the Revolution to the Civil War (Yale University Press, 2017).
JF: What led you to write Self-Evident Truths?
RB: I wrote Self-Evident Truths: Contesting Equal Rights from the Revolution to the Civil War because I wanted to understand how men who declared “all men are created equal” could launch a nation that maintained slavery and other forms of privilege: religious, gender, and class especially. Was the Declaration simply a fraud, or was the founders’ statement of equality intended seriously–and if it was serious, to what extent was that goal realized?
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Self-Evident Truths?
RB: Self–Evident Truths argues that providing equal rights was a goal for some in the founding generation; but existing customs and institutions blocked realization of equal rights. Moreover the commitment to individual rights included a commitment to heritable private property, which was and remains a barrier to the actual possession of equal rights.
JF: Why do we need to read Self-Evident Truths?
RB: People need to read Self-Evident Truths so as to understand the founding of the United States, its history, and our own times. People need to comprehend how the ideal of equal rights was created and the extent to which Americans have, or have not, made equal rights a reality.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
RB: I became committed to the study of American history as a college sophomore because I believed it would help me understand American society, its trajectory, and my place in it.
JF: What is your next project?
RB: During my career I have moved back and forth between close, microhistorical studies and broad interpretive works, sometimes–as in Self-Evident Truths–combining the two. In my next work I plan to narrate and analyze the great fire that in 1811 destroyed most of Newburyport, Massachusetts, and the separate trials ten years apart wherein two teen-aged brothers were convicted and sentenced for arson, one to five years in prison, the other to death.
JF: Thanks, Richard!