White supremacists gather under a statue of Robert E. Lee during a rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, August 2017.
JOSHUA ROBERTS / REUTERS

The documents most closely associated with the creation of the United States—the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution—present a problem with which Americans have been contending from the country’s beginning: how to reconcile the values espoused in those texts with the United States’ original sin of slavery, the flaw that marred the country’s creation, warped its prospects, and eventually plunged it into civil war. The Declaration of Independence had a specific purpose: to cut the ties between the American colonies and Great Britain and establish a new country that would take its place among the nations of the world. But thanks to the vaulting language of its famous preamble, the document instantly came to mean more than that. Its confident statement that “all men are created equal,” with “unalienable Rights” to “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness,” put notions of freedom and equality at the

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  • ANNETTE GORDON-REED is Charles Warren Professor of American Legal History at Harvard Law School and Professor of History at Harvard University.
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