Are all men created equal?

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It is certainly possible to respect an idea or a country, while at the same time searching for a reason not to be critical. In fact, it would be commendable to criticize a bad idea while profoundly respecting the people who live with its consequences.

In that light, then, it becomes exceedingly difficult to respect a group of people who would deceive an entire nation by uttering from a position of power a statement as asinine as “all men are created equal,” and entrenching it into that country’s declaration of independence from its mother country. But that is what was written when the text of the United States Declaration of Independence was framed.

In 1774, when Thomas Jefferson drafted the declaration, he was a slaveholder, as were a large number of members of the Continental Congress who signed the finished document in 1776—but not before amending it to the exclusion of about a quarter of its original content, and thank Providence for that. Benjamin Franklin, a clear headed, thinking individual, was given the task of proof reading the document and he made more than a few subtle changes to the wording, among them the phrase, “we hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable,” which he changed to “…truths to be self-evident.” He was right to change it, since it would be difficult to rationalize a god that sanctioned slavery; on the other hand, the modified phrase changed nothing, only indicating what was there for all to see, a simple term that covers a lot of bases and, like the Bible, is open to a whole bagful of interpretation.

Flawed and blatantly hypocritical though it was, the phrase, in modified form, was used in the Declaration of Rights of the Inhabitants of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, which opens that constitution: “Article 1. All men are born free and equal, and have certain natural, essential, and unalienable rights; among which may be reckoned their right of enjoying and defending their lives and liberties; that of acquiring, possessing and protecting property; in fine, that of seeking and obtaining their safety and happiness.”

Two subsequent lawsuits declared that this phrase abolished slavery in the state of Massachusetts, but it was nearly a hundred years later before the argument was resolved nationwide. Abraham Lincoln, in his Gettysburg Address four score and seven years later, also used the all men being equal term, but at least he had a legitimate reason for it.

The Black slaves were men and women who were brought to the United States in chains against their will, and were forced to work for sustenance alone. They had no freedom whatever, had no rights and were equal only to other slaves. It took a civil war to end the slavery part, but the residual discrimination has yet to be resolved, some 148 years after the fact.

Think what additional greatness would have been enjoyed in the United States had slavery never occurred, (not to mention the 800,000 men killed in the civil war because of it) or if it had been abolished by a majority of compassionate men voting during colonial years, and the words of the Declaration of Independence had come a little closer to really meaning what they say. (In fact, no living creature of any gender or stripe is equal to any other). What a boring and uneventful world it would be if they were. And what a pity that the foundation of the most powerful nation the world has ever known had to be based on a lie.

 

John G. McKay is a member of the Amherst News Community Editorial Panel.

Organizations: Continental Congress, Commonwealth of Massachusetts, Amherst News Community Editorial Panel

Geographic location: United States, Massachusetts

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