Our Founding Principles – Equality
A widespread consciousness of the inherent equality of man was only beginning to emerge in the eighteenth century. The civilized world was still ruled by monarchs, emperors and the aristocratic elite who considered ordinary citizens as subjects obligated to subjugate their aspirations to the will of their “betters”. America was the first nation to give official recognition to the principle of equality. Even here however, it has never been universally practiced other than as an abstract ideal.
Fortunately, however, it did become one of the core principles underlying our Constitution and the number one principle in our legal system. The term was used in the Declaration for its political impact. Jefferson gives as an objective of the Declaration “…to place before mankind the common sense of the subject, in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent, and to justify ourselves in the independent stand we are compelled to take…”
The principle of man’s equality is intuitively sensed by all of mankind, whether practiced or not. It is a powerful tool of persuasion when contending for justice. This use by Jefferson, however, does not diminish its universal application to the inherent status of man. The modern day detractors of our system of government often point to the use of the phrase in the Declaration of Independence as proof of America’s hypocrisy, and to discredit the Founding Fathers.
The problem many have in reconciling the above statement with what they experience and observe in the real world is due to confusing the meaning of “equality” with their own preconceived notion of “justice” or “fairness”. Jefferson was not talking about one’s station in life, possession of wealth, success in business or any of the other inequalities of life that are often compared to this phrase in an attempt to discredit him as hypocritical. He was referring to their inherent value and standing as human beings.
A study of Jefferson’s life reveals a lifelong struggle to live up to this principle, which he firmly believed in at the intellectual level, but like most of us, had a problem with its application in his personal life. Nowhere is this struggle more evident than in his position on slavery. Although he was the owner of slaves inherited from his father, wife and father-in-law, he was one of the early advocates for emancipation and an end to the slave economy.
One of his strongest condemnations of the institution of slavery is found in the original draft of the Declaration of Independence. (Reproduced here) In his indictment of King George III, Jefferson writes,
- “He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither…”
This clause was left out of the finished Declaration by the Congress because many of the state delegates were themselves slave holders and they did not wish to alienate the support of southern states or northerners who profited from the slave trade.
Jefferson also served in the Confederation Congress for a short time before being dispatched to France on a diplomatic mission. In 1783-84 he served as chairman of the Committee on Ordinance for the Western Territory. The revised report of the Committee issued on March 22, 1784 and presumably written by Jefferson required,
“That after the year 1800 of the Christian era, there shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in any of the said states, otherwise than in punishment of crimes, whereof the party shall have been convicted to have been personally guilty”.
In his “Notes on the State of Virginia”, 1785, Jefferson rhetorically asks,
- “Can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with his wrath? Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep forever..; The Almighty has no attribute which can take side with us in such a context [slavery]…I think a change already perceptible, since the origin of the present revolution. The spirit of the master is abating, that of the slave rising from the dust, his condition mollifying, the way I hope preparing, under the auspices of heaven, for a total emancipation…”
The equality Jefferson claims in the declaration is stated by him as being a “self-evident” truth, “obvious without explanation or proof”. He then says this equality is common to all mankind and that it is inherent in the act of creation. Since the equality claimed by Jefferson is endowed on everyone by virtue of his or her creation, the right to be treated as an equal would be one of the unalienable rights endowed by their creator, spoken of by Jefferson later in the same sentence.
If we expand our consideration further to its historical context, we see that this reference to equality, in the Declaration, referred to the relationship between the government and its citizens or in this case, between the government and its subjects. It was the unequal treatment by King George III and the English Parliament of the colonial citizens and the resident citizens of Great Britain that partially led to the Revolutionary War.
It was also this principle of civil equality that provided the philosophical basis for virtually every article in the Constitution. However, It took the Civil War (1861 – 1865), followed by another hundred years of civil strife in order to fully realize its application to the requirements of the Constitution. It is also the principle of equality that forms the basis for republicanism and capitalism and is the central theme of Thomas Paine’s book “Common Sense” in which he condemns the Monarchy.
The basic premise of this principle is that no one has the right to rule another without their consent because all humans are equal in their intrinsic being. In spite of the fact that Bernie Madoff sits in jail while Barney Frank sits in Congress, the republican application of the principle is that the law applies equally to everyone regardless of his or her position in life.