The long ongoing debate over “All men are created equal”
NEW YORK – Kevin Jennings is CEO of the organization Lambda Legal, a prominent LGBTQ rights advocate. He sees his mission in part as the fulfillment of that sacred American principle: “All men are created equal.”
“Those words tell me, ‘Do better, America.’ And what I mean by that is that we’ve never been a country where people were truly equal,” Jennings says. “That’s an aspiration to pursue, and we’re not there yet. .”
Ryan T. Anderson is president of the Conservative Center for Ethics and Public Policy. He too believes that “all men are created equal”. For him, the words mean that we all have “the same dignity, we all count the same, no one is disposable, no one is a second-class citizen.” At the same time, he says, not everyone has the same right to marry – what he and other conservatives see as the legal union of a man and a woman.
“I don’t think human equality requires redefining what marriage is,” he says.
Few words in American history are invoked as often as those in the preamble to the Declaration of Independence, issued nearly 250 years ago. And few are more difficult to define. The music and economics of “all men are created equal” make it both universal and elusive, adaptable to viewpoints – social, racial, economic – otherwise with little or no common ground. How we use them often depends less on how we came into the world than on the kind of world we want to live in.
It’s as if “All men are created equal” leads us to ask ourselves: “So what?”
“We say ‘All men are created equal’, but does that mean we have to make everyone entirely equal at all times, or does that mean everyone is entitled to a chance?” said Michael Waldman, president of the Brennan Center for Justice. “Individualism is built into this sentence, but also a broader and more egalitarian vision. There are many there.
Thomas Jefferson helped immortalize the phrase, but he didn’t invent it. The words, in one form or another, date back centuries before the Declaration and were even preceded in 1776 by the Virginia Bill of Rights, which stated that “all men are by nature equally free and independent.” Peter Onuf, professor emeritus at the University of Virginia whose books include “The Mind of Thomas Jefferson”, notes that Jefferson himself did not claim to have said anything radically new and wrote in 1825 that the Declaration lacked “Originality of principle or sentiment.”
The Declaration was an indictment of the British monarchy, but not a declaration of justice for all. For Jefferson’s slave owner “and most of his fellow patriots, slaves were property and therefore were not included in these new policies, leaving their status unchanged,” Onuf says. He added that “this did not mean that he did not recognize his enslaved people as a people, but simply that he could only enjoy these universal and natural rights elsewhere, in a country of his own: emancipation and expatriation”.
Hannah Spahn, a professor at the John F. Kennedy Institute in Berlin and author of the upcoming “Black Reason, White Feeling: The Jeffersonian Enlightenment in the African American Tradition,” says a draft version of the Declaration made it clear that Jefferson meant “all humans” were created equal, but not necessarily that all humans are equal before the law. Spahn, like great Revolutionary War scholars such as Jack Rakove, believes that “all men are created equal” originally referred less to individual equality than to the rights of a people as a whole to self-government.
Once the Declaration was released, perceptions began to change. Black Americans were among the first to change them, including New England-based pastor Lemuel Haynes. Shortly after July 4, Haynes wrote “Liberty Further Extended: Or Free Thoughts on the Illegality of Slave-Keeping”, an essay not published before 1983 but considered to reflect the feelings of many members of the black community, with its appeal to ” to affirm, that even an Affrican has an equal right to his liberty in common with the English.
Spahn finds Haynes’ response “philosophically novel”, as he isolated the passage containing the famous phrase from the rest of the Declaration and made it express “timeless and universally binding standards”.
“He deliberately downplayed Jefferson’s initial emphasis on issues of collective assent and consent,” she says.
The words have since been adapted and reinterpreted endlessly. By feminists at the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention who declared, “We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men and women are created equal. By civil rights leaders from Frederick Douglass to the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., who in his “I Have a Dream” speech presented the phrase as a sacred promise to black Americans. By Abraham Lincoln, who invoked them in the Gettysburg Address and elsewhere, but with a narrower scope than King imagined a century later.
In Lincoln’s time, according to historian Eric Foner, “they made a careful distinction between natural, civil, political, and social rights. One could enjoy equality in one but not in the other.
“Lincoln spoke of equality in natural rights — life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” says Foner, whose books include Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery.” “That’s why slavery is wrong and why people have an equal right to the fruits of their labor. Political rights were determined by the majority and could be limited by it.”
The words were entirely denied. John C. Calhoun, the South Carolina senator and staunch defender of slavery, found “not a word of truth” in it when he attacked the phrase during a speech in 1848. Vice President Alexander H. Stephens of the Confederate States argued in 1861 that “the great truth” is “the negro is not equal to the white man; that the subordination of slavery to the superior race is its natural and normal condition.
The annulment of Roe v. Wade and other recent Supreme Court rulings has led some activists to question whether “All men are created equal” still has any meaning. Robin Marty, author of “Handbook for a Post-Roe America,” calls the phrase a “bromide” for those “who don’t know how unequal our lives truly are.”
Marty added that the reversal of abortion rights gave the unborn “greater protection than most”, a claim echoed in part by Roe’s opponents who said that “All men are created equals” includes the unborn child.
Among contemporary politicians and other public figures, words are applied for very different purposes.
– President Donald Trump cited them in October 2020 (“The divine truth that our founders inscribed in the fabric of our nation: that all people are created equal”) in a statement banning federal agencies from teaching “theory criticism of race. President Joe Biden echoed the language of Seneca Falls (“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men and women are created equal”) while praising unions last month as he addressed an AFL-CIO rally in Philadelphia.
– Morse Tan, dean of Liberty University, the evangelical school co-founded by the Reverend Jerry Falwell Sr., says the words confirm a “classic and long-held Judeo-Christian notion”: “The irreducible value and value that all human beings have because they (are) created in the image of God.Secular humanists note Jefferson’s own religious skepticism and adapt his words and worldview to 18th-century Enlightenment thought, putting the emphasis on human reason rather than faith.
– Conservative organizations from the Claremont Institute to the Heritage Center see “all men are created equal” as proof that affirmative action and other government anti-racism programs are unnecessary and contrary to the ideal of a “colorblind” system.
Ibram X. Kendi, the award-winning author and director of Boston University’s Center for Antiracist Research, says words can serve what he calls both “anti-racist” and “assimilationist” perspectives.
“The anti-racist idea suggests that all racial groups are biologically, intrinsically equal. The assimilationist idea is that all racial groups are created equal, but it leaves open the idea that some racial groups become inferior through upbringing, which means some racial groups are culturally or behaviorally inferior,” says Kendi, whose books include “Stamped from the Beginning” and “How to Be an Anti-Racist.”
“To be anti-racist is to recognize that it is not just that we are created equal, or biologically equal. It is that all racial groups are equal. And if there are disparities between these equal racial groups, then it is the result of racist politics or structural racism and not the inferiority or superiority of one racial group.
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