The Truths Were Self-Evident
The Realization of Equality Wasn’t
One of the first things a child learns in school is the most quoted line from the Declaration of Independence: “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.”
Every school child learns this, but so does every immigrant studying for their citizenship test. It is a favorite line in political speeches as well. These are very lofty and inspirational words. It was those words that incited a people to rise up against a Kings. In reality, however, the truths were self-evident, the actualization, not so much.
Although imperfect, our Founding Fathers were products of their time and it took a great deal of bravery to stand up to a King. Imperfect as it is, our democracy is far better than the governments in Russia, China, North Korea, and in many developing nations. Nevertheless, we cannot fix something until we first realize it is broken.
I remember in second grade when we were learning about the Declaration of Independence, a female classmate raised her hand and asked, “Why aren’t girls created equal too?” The teacher replied “Beverly, they are. Back in those days, the word ‘men’ referred to both men and women.”
She was technically correct. Terms like mankind referred to both genders. The reality, however, was that the authors of the Declaration, all male, educated, landowners, intended the term “men” to be exclusive, not inclusive. All men in this context referred to white males who owned land. All other persons present in the 13 colonies were deliberately excluded from the “equality” club, and the unalienable rights that came with entitlement, to wit: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.
That may sound cynical, but it is factual. Look at the deeds of the Founding Fathers, not just their words.
Equal did not mean Equality
After the Revolution, the former colonists adopted the Constitution. It specifically provided that only white males of means (landowners) could vote. Only Protestant white males could hold public office. And worse, it legalized slavery. The founders, in the Constitution, legalized the separation of children from their enslaved families; tearing a man from his wife. Raping, beating, or killing a slave was seen as a business practice, not a crime. If a slave struck a white man or woman, however, that was a capital offense. These “men” were not equal. Slaves had no right to protest a rape, assault, theft, child molestation, or any other crime. Those were not crimes if committed by a white man or woman against a slave.
Furthermore, our Founding Fathers did not view our indigenous people as equal. They justified taking their land even if it meant by force, killing them if necessary.
Equality Advanced in Baby Steps
Fortunately, our Constitution allowed for elections, and over time, many of the worst flaws in our democracy were eliminated. Slavery was eventually made illegal. The practice of taking Native American land without compensation was stopped, but not until the original owners were put on Reservations. Men who did not own property were allowed to vote; former male slaves were allowed to vote (on paper); and lastly, yes lastly, women were given the right to vote. The fact women, half the population, were dead last in the pecking order of voting rights is quite curious.
The realization of equality was slow to happen and is not yet fully actualized. Fortunately, the words of the Founding Fathers, give those without true equality a basis to demand it. Like the Revolution itself, this does not happen without struggle.
Equality Now at Risk
There are very ominous clouds on the horizon, however. The 200-year trend towards equality may be ending. We have a popularly elected president who for the first time in our history, views the presidency as a monarchy. His Party, the former Party of Lincoln, and his electoral base walk in lock step with this view. They blindly support all his policies to roll back rights from large segments of the population like Dreamers, minorities, the LGBTQ community, immigrants, and refugees.
Time will tell if this is a fluke, or a reversal in our 200+ year struggle for equality. It is safe to say, however, that it is harder to take an inalienable right away from the population than it is to bestow it. Reversing equality will not happen easily.