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The long, ongoing debate over ‘all men are created equal’

Kevin Jennings is the CEO of Lambda Legal, a leading advocate of LGBTQ rights. He sees his mission 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 really equal,” Jennings says. “It’s an aspiration to continue working, and we’re not there yet.”

Ryan T. Anderson is president of the Conservative Ethics and Public Policy Center. He also 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.” Plus, he says, not everyone has the same right to marry—which he and other conservatives regard as the legal union of a man and woman.

“I don’t think there is a need to redefine marriage for human equality,” he says.

Few words are used as often in American history, from the Preamble to the Declaration of Independence, which was published some 250 years ago. And some are more difficult to define. Music, and the economy, “all men are created equal” make it compatible with both universal and elusive, perspectives—social, racial, economic—with little or no common ground otherwise. How we use them depends less on how we came into this world than what kind of world we want to live in.

It is as if “all men are created equal” prompts us to ask: “And then what?”

“We say ‘all men are created equal’ but does that mean we need to make everyone completely equal at all times, or does it mean that everyone gets a fair shot?” Michael Waldman, president of the Brennan Center for Justice. “Individualism is baked into that phrase, but there’s also a broader, more egalitarian vision. There’s so much more.”

Thomas Jefferson helped immortalize the expression, but he did not invent it. The term in some form or another predates the Declaration and even preceded the Virginia Declaration of Rights in 1776, which stated that “all men are by nature equally free and independent.” Peter Onuf, a professor emeritus at the University of Virginia, whose books include “The Mind of Thomas Jefferson”, noted that Jefferson himself did not claim to have said anything new and wrote in 1825 that the Declaration contained “principle or spirit”. originality” was lacking. ,

This Undated Engraving Shows The Scene On July 4, 1776 When The Declaration Of Independence, Drawn Up By Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Philip Livingston, And Roger Sherman, Was Approved By The Continental Congress In Philadelphia.

This undated engraving shows the scene on July 4, 1776 when the Declaration of Independence, drawn up by Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Philip Livingston, and Roger Sherman, was approved by the Continental Congress in Philadelphia.

The Declaration was an indictment of the British monarchy, but not a statement of justice for all. “For Jefferson’s master of slaves,” says Onuf, and most of his fellow patriots, the enslaved people were property and were therefore not included in these new policies, leaving their position unchanged. He said that “this did not mean that they did not recognize their enslaved people as people, just that they could enjoy only those universal, natural rights elsewhere in their country: liberation and exile.”

Hannah Spahn, professor at the John F. Kennedy Institute in Berlin and author of the forthcoming “Black Region, White Feeling: The Jeffersonian Enlightenment in the African American Tradition,” says that a draft version of the declaration clarified that Jefferson meant “all human beings”. were created equal but this does not necessarily mean that all human beings were equal under the law. Spahn, like prominent Revolutionary War scholars such as Jack Rakov, believed that “all men are created equal” originally referred less to individual equality than to people’s rights to self-government. Is.

Once the announcement was released, perceptions began to change. Black Americans were among the first to replace them, most notably New England-based pastor Lemuel Haynes. Shortly after July 4, Haynes wrote “Liberty for Extended: or Free Thought on the Illegality of Slave-Keeping”, an essay not published until 1983, but seen as reflecting the sentiments of many in the black community. , with its call to “affirm. That an African has as much a right to his liberty as the British.

Spahn found Haynes’ response “philosophically innovative”, as he separated the famously phrased passage from the rest of the announcement and expressed it as a “timeless, universally binding norm”.

“They deliberately undermine Jefferson’s original emphasis on collective consent and the problems of consent,” she says.

The words have been adapted and reinterpreted endlessly since then. “We consider these truths to be self-evident; that all men and women are created equal.” by civil rights leaders from Frederick Douglass to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who held the phrase as a sacred promise to black Americans in his “I Have a Dream” speech. by Abraham Lincoln, who invoked him at the Gettysburg Address and elsewhere, but with a narrower scope than the king imagined a century later.

In Lincoln’s time, according to historian Eric Foner, “he made a careful distinction between natural, civil, political and social rights. One may 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 the Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Fairy Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery.” “Hence why slavery is wrong and why people have equal rights over the fruits of their labor. Political rights were determined by the majority and could be limited by them.”

The words are completely refuted. John C. Calhoun, a South Carolina senator and staunch defender of slavery, found “not a word of truth” in him as he attacked the phrase during a speech in 1848. Confederate States Vice President Alexander H. Stephens argued in 1861 that the “great truth” is “the Negro is not equal to the white man; that the slavery of the superior race is his natural and normal condition.”

Wade and other recent Supreme Court rulings have led some activists to wonder whether “all men are created equal” still made sense. Robin Marty, author of “Handbook for a Post-Row America,” calls the phrase “bromide,” which ignores how unequal our lives really are.

Marty said that the elevation of abortion rights gave “greater protections” to the unborn, a contention echoed in part by Roe opponents who have said that “all men are created equal” include the unborn.

Among contemporary politicians and other public figures, the terms are applied to very different ends.

  • President Donald Trump said in October 2020 (the “Divine Truth of Our Founders Rooted in the Fabric of Our Nation: That All People Are Created Equal”) in a statement forbidding federal agencies from teaching the “Critical Race Theory” cited. President Joe Biden addressed the AFL-CIO gathering in Philadelphia last month while praising labor unions, using the language of Seneca Falls (“We consider these truths to be self-evident, that all men and women are created equal”). echoed.
  • Morse Tan, the evangelical school co-founded by Rev. Jerry Falwell Sr., dean of Liberty University, says that the words retain a “classic, long-standing” Judeo-Christian notion: “the immutable values ​​and values ​​that all human beings possess.” Because they (are) created in the image of God.” Secular humanists draw on Jefferson’s own theological skepticism and fit his words and worldview within 18th-century Enlightenment thinking, emphasizing human reasoning over faith.
  • Conservative organizations ranging from the Claremont Institute to the Heritage Foundation regard “all men are created equal” as evidence that affirmative action and other government programs addressing racism are unnecessary and part of a “colour-blind” system. contrary to the norm.

Ibram X Kendy, award-winning author and director of the Center for Antiracist Research at Boston University, says the words “antiracist” and “assimilationist” can conjure up both perspectives.

“The anti-racism view states that all racial groups are biologically, inherently equal.

The assimilating idea is that all racial groups are created equal, but it leaves open the idea that some racial groups are nutritionally inferior, meaning that some racial groups are culturally or behaviorally inferior. ,” says Kendy, whose books “stamped from the beginning” include “How to Be Anti-Racist.”

“To be a racist is to recognize that it is not just that we are the same, or biologically the same. It is that all racial groups are equal. And if there are inequalities between those same racial groups, that is racist policy. or structural racism, not the inferiority or superiority of any racial group.”

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