On this Independence Day, that sublime phrase “all men are created equal” is on my mind.
After hundreds of hours this year of reading history and the opinions of learned men across the social and political spectrum, it is clear to me that the esteemed Framers of the Declaration of Independence did not, in fact, write the word “all” in the same manner as today we understand it. For example, the Constitution, just five years later, established the slaves as counting only 3/5 of a man each. And “all men” definitely meant “all males;” there was no sense that women were included at the same level. Further, only well-off landowners were considered suitable holders of the sacred duty of deciding how to manage the new nation. In fact, a reasonable accounting of the intent of the Framers was that about 20% of the populace – the white male property owners – would fully benefit from the liberties enshrined in the founding documents. Certainly, the other 80% would benefit secondarily from no longer being subjects of a despotic far-off king, but would benefit at a lesser level than those special few.
Clearly, we have evolved in our understanding of “equal.” But Amendments 15, 19, 24, and 26 were required over nearly two hundred years (until 1971) to extend “equal” to non-whites, women, non landowners, and younger individuals.
And just as clearly, aspirational statements enshrined in our founding documents do not carry the force of law. Working out these goals and giving them proper force in the Executive, Legislative, and Judicial branches of our government is a tedious, difficult process at best. Those with bad intentions can sneak in oppressive policies or loopholes into the code which governs our conduct. And even with the wisest men with best intentions writing good well-meaning laws, often loopholes and unintended consequences appear over the succeeding years, showing that what was initially considered to be equal and fair treatment could be corrupted and abused to oppress various groups.
For these reasons, I must dispute the common argument that in America, all humans were at the time of the Declaration, and also are in practice today, equal under the law.
Perhaps real equality was the original intent – but simple statements are incomplete, and intentions do not equate to results.
So let us not rest from our work. The Bible’s statements about “justice” consistently include proper and generous treatment of the poor, widows, orphans, foreigners, and even criminals. We can always do better, and we cannot assume that the work has already been completed.
In Congress, July 4, 1776
The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America. When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.–Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.
- He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.
- He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his Assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.
- He has refused to pass other Laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of Representation in the Legislature, a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only.
- He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.
- He has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people.
- He has refused for a long time, after such dissolutions, to cause others to be elected; whereby the Legislative powers, incapable of Annihilation, have returned to the People at large for their exercise; the State remaining in the mean time exposed to all the dangers of invasion from without, and convulsions within.
- He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.
- He has obstructed the Administration of Justice, by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary powers.
- He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone, for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.
- He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harrass our people, and eat out their substance.
- He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures.
- He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil power.
- He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation:
- For Quartering large bodies of armed troops among us:
- For protecting them, by a mock Trial, from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States:
- For cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world:
- For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent:
- For depriving us in many cases, of the benefits of Trial by Jury:
- For transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences
- For abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighbouring Province, establishing therein an Arbitrary government, and enlarging its Boundaries so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule into these Colonies:
- For taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws, and altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments:
- For suspending our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever.
- He has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us.
- He has plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.
- He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.
- He has constrained our fellow Citizens taken Captive on the high Seas to bear Arms against their Country, to become the executioners of their friends and Brethren, or to fall themselves by their Hands.
- He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.
In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.
Nor have We been wanting in attentions to our Brittish brethren. We have warned them from time to time of attempts by their legislature to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us. We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here. We have appealed to their native justice and magnanimity, and we have conjured them by the ties of our common kindred to disavow these usurpations, which, would inevitably interrupt our connections and correspondence. They too have been deaf to the voice of justice and of consanguinity. We must, therefore, acquiesce in the necessity, which denounces our Separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace Friends.
We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.
One Reply to “Created Equal – a Work Still in Progress”
While ‘equality’ might be considered a specific standard, there’s an interesting parallel in who might be ‘qualified’ to participate in public policy and governance. Part of what we see today as discrimination was initially a separation between those knowledgeable enough to contribute to national decisions and those who were not.
White land owners were involved in community decisions while women and children were not. Servants and field workers were not. Members of the indigenous population certainly were not. The separation wasn’t intended to be abusive, just a reasonable limitation of who should be allowed to participate in the decision-making.
As education and experience broadened across the population, a voting age was introduced to simplify the process. Women and minorities were eventually allowed into the process, and the voting age has been lowered several times across the states and political venues. The current legislative discussion is considering the age of 16 for the right to vote in federal elections.
So, as to the founder’s intent, perhaps there just was a measure of practical consideration for who should be involved in governance. Today, in our struggle for equality, we cannot coherently include literacy or education or experience in the rules; it would be impossibly complex. So we’re left with the residuals of early thinking that the poor and nonwhites and females were inadequately equipped for equality of status in the community and nation. Such thinking perhaps interferes in family relationships as well, and there are many more tediously detailed questions for which no simple answer will surface.
We must do our best with laws and practices to address the issues as they arise, but there is more required of us than that. As you say, we can always do better, and we cannot assume that the work has already been completed.