The Long, Ongoing Debate Over ‘All Men Are Created Equal’

NEW YORK (AP) — Kevin Jennings is CEO of the Lambda Legal organization, a prominent advocate for LGBTQ rights. He sees his mission in part as fulfilling that sacred American principle: “All men are created equal.”

“Those words say to me, ‘Do better, America.’ And what I mean by that is that we’ve never been a country where people were truly equal,” says Jennings. “It’s a commitment to keep working towards it, and we’re not there yet.”

Ryan T. Anderson is president of the conservative Ethics and Public Policy Center. He too believes that ‘all men are created equal’. To him, the words mean that we all have “the same dignity, we all count equally, 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 consider the legal union of husband and wife.

“I don’t think human equality requires us to redefine what marriage is,” he says.

Few words in American history are used as often as those from the preamble to the Declaration of Independence, published nearly 250 years ago. And few are harder to define. The music and economics of “all men are created equal” make it both universal and elusive, adaptable to points of view – social, racial, economic – different with little or no common ground. How we use them often depends less on how we came into this world than on what kind of world we want to live in.

It’s as if “All men are created equal” leads us to ask, “And then what?”

“We say, ‘All men are created equal,’ but does that mean we have to make everyone completely equal at all times, or does that mean everyone gets a fair chance?” said Michael Waldman, president of the Brennan Center for Justice. “In that sense individualism is ingrained, but also a broader, more egalitarian vision. There’s a lot there.”

Thomas Jefferson helped immortalize the phrase, but he didn’t invent it. The words in some form predate the Declaration centuries before the Declaration and were even prefaced in 1776 by Virginia’s Declaration 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, writing 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 the slave Jefferson owned “and most of his fellow patriots, enslaved people were owned and therefore not included in these new polities, leaving their status unchanged,” Onuf says. He added that “didn’t mean he didn’t recognize his enslaved people as human beings, just that they could enjoy those universal, natural rights only elsewhere, in a country of their own: emancipation and displacement.”

Hannah Spahn, a professor at the John F. Kennedy Institute in Berlin and author of the forthcoming “Black Reason, White Feeling: The Jeffersonian Enlightenment in the African American Tradition,” says a draft of the statement made it clear that Jefferson meant “all men” were created equal, but not necessarily that all men were created equal under the law. Spahn believes, like eminent Revolutionary War scholars like Jack Rakove, 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 issued, perceptions began to change. Black Americans were among the first to change them, most notably 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 that wasn’t published until 1983 but was seen as reflecting the feelings of many in the black community, featuring the appeal to “affirm that even an African has just as much right to his liberty as Englishmen.”

Spahn finds Haynes’s response “philosophically innovative” because he isolated the famous sentence passage from the rest of the Declaration and expressed these “timeless, universally binding norms.”

“He deliberately downplayed Jefferson’s original emphasis on collective consent and consent issues,” she says.

The words have since been endlessly adapted and reinterpreted. By feminists at the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention who declared, “We take these truths for granted; that all men and women are created equal.” By civil rights leaders from Frederick Douglass to Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., who held up the phrase as a sacred promise to black Americans in his “I Have a Dream” speech. 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 day, 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 talked about equality in natural rights—life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” says Foner, whose books include the Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery.” “Therefore, slavery is wrong and people have an equal right to the fruits of their labour. Political rights were determined by the majority and could be limited by them.”

The words have been completely 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 claimed in 1861 that “the great truth” is “the negro is not equal to the white; that slavery subordination to the superior race is its natural and normal condition.”

The nullification of Roe v. Wade and other recent Supreme Court decisions 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 ignore how unequal our lives really are.”

Marty added that lifting abortion rights has given the unborn “greater protection than most,” a claim echoed in part by Roe opponents who said “all men are created equal,” including the unborn.

Today’s politicians and other public figures use the words for very different purposes.

– President Donald Trump quoted them in October 2020 (“The divine truth our founders enshrined in the fabric of our nation: that all people are created equal”) in a statement banning federal agencies from teaching “critical race theory.” President Joe Biden echoed the language of Seneca Falls (“We take these truths for granted, that all men and women are created equal”), praising unions last month when addressing an AFL-CIO meeting in Philadelphia.

– Morse Tan, dean of Liberty University, the evangelical school co-founded by Rev. Jerry Falwell Sr., says the words defend a “classic, long-standing” Judeo-Christian idea: “The irreducible value and value that all human beings because they (are) created in the image of God.” Secular humanists note Jefferson’s own religious skepticism and fit his words and worldview into 18th-century Enlightenment thinking, which emphasizes human reason over faith.

— Conservative organizations from the Claremont Institute to the Heritage Center view “all men are created equal” as evidence that affirmative action and other government programs that tackle racism are unnecessary and contrary to the ideal of a “color-blind” system.

Ibram X. Kendi, the award-winning author and director of the Center for Antiracist Research at Boston University, says the words could serve what he calls both “anti-racist” and “assimilationist” perspectives.

“The anti-racist idea suggests that all racial groups are biologically, inherently equal. The assimilation idea is that all racial groups are created equal, but it leaves open the idea that some racial groups become inferior through education, meaning that 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 an anti-racist is to recognize that we are not just created equal, or biologically equal. It is that all racial groups are equal. And if there are differences between those equal racial groups, it is the result of racist policies or structural racism and not the inferiority or superiority of a racial group.”


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