2/26/10 - all men are created equal

In today's excerpt - the concept of equality as expressed in the Declaration of Independence had the purpose of conveying America's right was the right to be equal with other nations. But in the decades after independence and culminating in Lincoln's Gettysburg Address Americans began reading the Declaration's ringing affirmation that "all men are created equal" in different terms:

"What the Declaration of Independence was really intended to declare was this plain fact: that a new people were preparing to assume their 'separate and equal Station' among the nations of the world, bid political adieu to their British countrymen, and seek the political recognition to which 'the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them.' ...

"Yet in calling this sovereign people into existence, the authors of the Declaration and the Constitution uneasily confronted one morally embarrassing challenge. In 1776 slavery was legal in all the new states, but the vast majority of African and African American slaves were concentrated in the plantation states, from Maryland south to the frontier outpost of Georgia. Were these hundreds of thousands of slaves who constituted this exploited labor force capable of becoming part of this new American people? In a fiery passage of the Declaration, Jefferson tried to finesse this problem by blaming the British monarchy for imposing the institution of slavery on unwilling American colonists. Congress deleted this entire passage, not only because many southern delegates were committed to slavery, but also because the delegates knew that many colonists were all too happy to draw their own prosperity from the sweat of other brows. Eleven years later the Federal Convention faced a similar problem. How could slaves be counted for purposes of representation when they could never be regarded as citizens in any conceivable sense of the term? To be a slave was to lack all legal rights—to be neither citizen nor subject, but simply an involuntary object of laws imposed on you and your descendants. The framers' solution—to call slaves 'other persons' and count each of them as three-fifths of a free person for purposes of allocating representation among the states—was a mark of the moral embarrassment that later led abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison to denounce the Constitution Of 1787 as 'a covenant with death.'

"That Constitution, in a sense, nearly died with the election of Abraham Lincoln to the presidency in 1860 and the ensuing secession crisis of 1861. But it was revived with the three Reconstruction amendments that freed the slaves, affirmed a new version of equal citizenship, and prohibited (at least in principle) 'race, color, or previous condition of servitude' from being used to deny the right to vote. The new constitutional vision of the 1860s reflected principles that many Americans had come to ascribe to the Declaration of Independence well after its adoption. The equality Americans claimed in 1776 was the right to become a nation like other nations. But in the decades after independence, Americans began reading the Declaration's ringing affirmation that 'all men are created equal' in different terms. Now it challenged the hierarchies of social class and legal status, race and gender that the congressional delegates of 1776 could still take for granted. A vision of equality among peoples was giving way to one of equality within a people. That was how Lincoln restated the founding proposition that 'all men are created equal' in the Gettysburg Address of 1863—a less formal and official document than the texts reprinted in this volume, but one that helped to complete the vision of peoplehood that Jefferson had first articulated four score and seven years earlier."


Jack N. Rakove


The Annotated U.S. Constitution and Declaration of Independence


Belknap Harvard


Copyright 2009 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College


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