A Forum for Opinions on News, Politics, and Life
July 4th, 2011
By Tom Carter
There’s a lot of discussion about the Declaration of Independence and the unique founding of the United States of America every year at this time. That’s a good thing. But we also should be reflective enough to consider the flaws in our founding.
The American Revolution against British rule, followed by the founding of a republic on philosophical principles of equality, democracy, and consent of the governed hadn’t happened before and hasn’t happened again. Some have tried, at least mouthing the right words, but the follow-through wasn’t there. Witness the bloody vengeance that followed the French Revolution and the rapid rise of a dictatorship.
The everlasting words of the Declaration of Independence have real meaning:
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.
These few words may be among the most famous and portentous in the English language. They’ve been quoted and studied by philosophers and political thinkers all over the world, and some have aspired to found their own societies and governments on those principles.
It’s true enough to say that America has struggled to live up to the stirring words drafted by Thomas Jefferson, seeking always to form a more perfect union of disparate states and peoples. We’re slowly getting there in many different respects, but when it all began we were far less than equal, not everyone enjoyed the benefits of those “inalienable rights,” and the Creator who supposedly endowed those rights had (and still has) a lot to answer for.
In 1776, about 20 percent of the population of the American colonies were black people, the overwhelming majority of them held as chattel slaves. They had no freedom or rights whatsoever and certainly were not included among “all men” who were created equal. Apparently neither most of the Founders nor the Creator they credited saw any contradiction in this; perhaps they considered black slaves to be something other than “men.”
And what about the half of the non-slave population who weren’t, strictly speaking, men? The Founders and, presumably, their Creator didn’t consider women to be equal at all. Most couldn’t vote (colonies and then states had different laws) and had hardly any of the rights men enjoyed. Women were considered inferior to men in all respects, a view strongly reinforced by religious leaders.
But wait, that’s not all: Many of the “men” who were presumed to be endowed with inalienable rights and the power to consent to be governed couldn’t, actually. Voting was restricted in many ways, to include property qualifications.
As American society has developed over they years, we’ve come to accept the idea that the Founders’ reference to “all men” was really meant to include all people, regardless of race, color, gender, etc. But it wasn’t. They clearly meant some men and intended to exclude women.
Does all this mean that we should engage in endless paroxysms of breast-beating about how terrible American is and has been since the founding? Certainly not; we’ve taken what we were given in the beginning and steadily made it better, and that’s to our great credit. What it does mean is that we should look at ourselves and our history with a bit more humility, and we should avoid unquestioning insistence on living today by the original words of Founders written in an entirely different era.
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