“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.” Despite reference to the “creator,” this is arguably the most revolutionary secular sentence penned to parchment in the annals of humankind.
Most will immediately recognize the first sentence of the Declaration of Independence. The universality of the Founders’ prose has been embraced by throngs of peoples in disparate cultures for over two centuries. However, the aspirations manifest in this simple yet enormously powerful sentence are tragically still unrealized for many American citizens. Thankfully, our understanding of the meaning of this sentence, the remainder of the Declaration, and its offspring, the Constitution, has evolved.
That evolution is critically important to understand because it points us toward a better future. We will focus on merely two words in this sentence. Those two words are men and equal: what they meant then, and what they mean now. In so doing, we learn how a successful and arguably rapid revolution for the combative American colonists became a slow-moving, multi-generational, and tortuous evolution for the enslaved. Since it is Black History month, a closer look seems warranted.
Although there were several in the Continental Congress, who despised the very idea of slavery, they ultimately made a pact with the devil. The issue of Black bondage was placed on-the-back-burner in the interests of the future establishment of the world’s first constitutional democracy. By some estimates, the price of freedom from British oppression for the 13 colonies was the continued enslavement of nearly 150,000 persons.
That number eventually swelled to as many as 4,000,000 in the following 87 years — until President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. The word men, then, clearly did not encompass those persons condemned to a cradle-to-grave miserable existence as property. Five thousand black men fought in George Washington’s army. The terrible irony is all too apparent.
Although finally corrected in the modern era, individual Black slaves were enshrined into the US Constitution as 3/5ths of a white man by the Electoral College. The often-repeated right-wing position that the Electoral College had nothing to do with slavery is absurd on its face. Despite its clearly racist leanings, the system did have the notable distinction of being the first in recorded human history to elect a national leader via a democratic process.
The Civil War’s arguable aim to “set men free” cost as many as 750,000 lives on both sides. Of those, 179,000 Black men wore Union blue, and 40,000 of that number died. Tragically, the conflict that was meant to bring freedom to those that most needed it, ultimately failed to deliver on its promise. The southern states eventually developed the outrageous “Jim Crow” laws that promulgated the heinous notion of “separate but equal.” The midnight lynching activities of the KKK were eventually burned into the national consciousness. Blacks were no longer slaves, but they were clearly not equal under the law either. Poll taxes and voter-ID laws all had the effect of suppressing the black vote. Slavery may have been outlawed, but obvious systemic racism was subsequently codified in jurisprudence. This clearly evolutionary change from slavery to second class citizen status was dreadful, falling far short of the stated objective of equal.
The long-time-in-coming 1964 Civil Rights Act corrected twisted law, making it illegal to discriminate against anyone because of “race, color, religion, sex, or national origin,” thus, ending the odious policy of segregation. That act is in many ways the crowning achievement of the American Civil Rights Movement that was led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. This was yet another milestone in the evolution toward making the word equal mean what it says.
The election of Barack Obama to the presidency in 2008 raised another marker on the arduous road to becoming equal. The Founders perhaps understandably could not have imagined in their day a black man serving in the highest office in the land. One wonders why Mr. Obama could not have rightly been designated as white. He was after all, a child of white and black parents. Why, then, is he universally considered black? Is mere appearance the ultimate qualifier? If so, why?
Several years ago, I taught U.S. History to undergraduate college students. They often concluded that the Founders were men of their times: that they were flawed, as we all are. Clearly, a significant number of these men’s understanding of equal in 1776 did not include those persons then enslaved. Thankfully, our society has matured in the right direction.
Despite these failings, the aspirational words of both the Declaration of Independence and Constitution have stood the test of time and now rightly and legally include all peoples regardless, of “race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.” Are we there yet? Not hardly.
Once the coronavirus has been defeated, the Biden/Harris Administration faces still daunting challenges in this arena. As is often the case, the armed forces will lead the way by removing the names of Confederate generals from military bases across our country. We should also applaud the recent confirmation of Lloyd Austin to the post of Secretary of Defense: the first Black person in history to serve in that critically important Cabinet post. The great orator, abolitionist, and author, Frederick Douglass, perceived the Constitution as “a glorious liberty document.” But only the long tortuous evolution has made his words ring true today.
Robert Bruce Adolph is the author of the new book, “Surviving the United Nations: The Unexpected Challenge.” He is a former senior Army Special Forces soldier and United Nations security chief. He has lived and worked in 15 different countries on four continents.