Tuesday, September 30, 2014

All Men Are Created Equal?

In my writings, I often refer to this iconic phrase from the Declaration of Independence, together with its companion language setting forth our unalienable rights and the statement that government’a purpose is to secure those rights, as the touchstone against which all acts of our government should be judged.  

Yet this very phrase, when viewed as hypocritical because of its obvious disconnect with what was actually happening at the time in the halls of government and in people’s lives, has called into question the intent of the framers and signers of the Declaration.  Was this merely a bold rhetorical flourish to gain acceptance both at home and on the world stage. or was it a deeply held conviction which was meant to chart the future course of the nation?

Not surprisingly, much research and writing has been done on this topic.  And the answers provided are by no means uniformly in one direction or the other.  In truth, the answer is often foretold by the politics of the researcher.  

Because of the enormous importance and potential of these words, to my mind, in redirecting our government and our citizens to a stronger, more just society and nation, I wanted to survey the literature to see what answers I would draw from it.  As objectively as I could, despite my admitted liberal bias.  

First let me restate the obvious.  Slavery was present in the country, both in the south and the north.  The Constitution codified slavery in the “3/5 compromise,” which stated that each slave shall be counted as a 3/5 person when the census was taken to establish the population of each state and thus its representation in Congress.  Thomas Jefferson, who crafted the phrase, was a slaveholder and remained a slaveholder to his death.  All the signers from the South were slaveholders.  

And the problem does not just lie with the fact of slavery.  Women were legally little more than chattel under the total control of their husbands; they had virtually no rights. And in fact, it would take women longer than African-Americans to achieve legal equality and the right to vote. The evidence arguing for a finding of hypocrisy could and has filled up books.

But that is not where this question ends.  Thomas Jefferson and most of the men who were present at these debates and signed the Declaration were men of the enlightenment.   They were men of ideas, and ideas are not always ... actually almost never ... a reflection of the reality of the moment.  Ideas, by their very nature, are meant to chart, to influence the future, whether in science or in human affairs.

In looking at various writings and notes of Jefferson and others, some researchers have thus concluded that what this phrase relates is their belief that all men and women are created equal in the sight of God.  Yet they were all well-aware that the kingdom of God is not to be found on Earth.  And so. like many ideas, it’s inclusion in the Declaration was meant to be an aspirational statement, something to guide the future of the nation.

In our current age, in which the paucity of ideas is reflected everyday in the halls of Congress, in our schools, and in corporate and government offices throughout the country, it is hard to fathom the age of enlightenment and the role that ideas played in bringing about changes in all areas of human activity.  To understand that Jefferson was neither hypocritical nor schizophrenic when writing “all men are created equal,” but rather a man caught in his time who knew, however, that there was something beyond the exigencies of the present, something larger, that needed expression and preservation.  There was no intellectual dishonesty here.

And so the power of the words of the Declaration of Independence remain undiminished.  They should be used to repurpose, to redirect our government and our citizens ... not to something new and unfamiliar, but to something deeply embedded in our founding documents, waiting to be put into action by a nation grounded in social consciousness.

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 . . .”