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Jefferson's..."All Men Are Created Equal"

By The Reverend Published: July 4, 2013

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.

When Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration he owned hundreds of slaves. Upon Jefferson's death, the only slaves given their freedom in the former president's will were two of the sons of Sally Hemmings, Jefferson's black slave mistress.

What, then, did the words "all men are created equal" really mean to Jefferson? Obviously, the word "men" meant 'white men.' Voting rights at the time make clear what the words "all men are created equal" really meant in practice.....

1776 - White men with property can vote. Free black men can vote in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Connecticut. (The Progress Report adds -- in Maryland between 1776-1783 free black men could vote, but between 1783-1810 only those who were freed prior to 1783 were permitted to vote, and after 1810 no black men at all were allowed to vote.)

In 1789, when the Constitution was ratified and the United States democracy experiment began, "all men are created equal" played out this way....

1789 - Establishment of US democracy. White men with property can vote. Poor people, Women, Native Americans, and enslaved African- Americans cannot vote.

In real terms, when it was written, the Declaration's "all men are created equal....and are endowed with certain unalienable rights".....actually only applied to white males in America.

My point here is not to disparage the Founders for their white male supremacy thinking in the 18th century.....but instead, to illustrate how democracy and freedom in America have been an ongoing work in progress for over 230 years.

Yes, it was 1776 when Jefferson and the boys declared independence from the British with lofty words about the equality of all men....yet it wasn't until one hundred years later in 1870 that the 15th amendment passed and black Americans were finally acknowledged as "equal" enough with whites to be permitted to vote.

1870 - The 15th Amendment establishes the right of African-American males to vote. In the South especially, poll taxes, reading requirements, physical violence, property destruction, hiding the polls, and economic pressures keep most African-Americans from voting. The Ku Klux Klan is a major part of the violence and intimidation used to keep African-Americans from voting.

Naturally, when the architect of Monticello penned the Declaration's "all men are created equal" phrase in 1776.....the meaning, to early Patriots, excluded women. The word "men", chosen by Jefferson, didn't mean 'humankind'. It meant....white males.

150 years after the inspiring, yet misleading, words of the Declaration were written....women were granted the right to vote....

1920 - Prior to 1920, some parts of the country let women vote. What or whom they can vote for depends on the area they are in. Some can vote only in school elections. Women in the Wyoming and Utah territory and Colorado have full voting rights. It isn't until 1920 that all women have the right to vote.

On this Independence Day honoring the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776 it's important to recognize that striving for freedom, liberty, and equality in a democracy is never a done deal. The United States has made great strides in fulfilling the declared promise in 1776 that "all men are created equal." We should all be extremely proud of the progress our country has made.....even if it has taken over two centuries.

Yet, lofty and inspiring words are just that....lofty and inspiring. Repeating those lofty and inspiring words once a year may be self-satisfying....but unless the implications of those lofty and inspiring words are fully grasped, understood and continually applied in the real world to "all men".....meaning 'all Americans'...not simply 'all American white males', as in Jefferson's day....then we, the declared equal and independent people, still have work to do.

Have a relaxing 4th.

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