The long, ongoing debate over ‘All men are created equal’ – The Denver Post



NEW YORK — Kevin Jennings is CEO of the Lambda Legal organization, a prominent advocate for LGBTQ rights. He sees his mission in part as fulfilling that hallowed American principle: “All men are created equal.”

“Those words say to me, ‘Do better, America.’ And what I mean by that is we have never been a country where people were truly equal,” Jennings says. “It’s an aspiration to continue to work towards, and we’re not there yet.”

Ryan T. Anderson is president of the conservative Ethics and Public Policy Center. He, too, believes that “all men are created equal.” For him, the words mean we all have “the same dignity, we all count equally, no one is disposable, no one a second-class citizen.” At the same time, he says, not everyone has an equal right to marry — what he and other conservatives regard as the legal union of a man and woman.

“I don’t think human equality requires redefining what marriage is,” he says.

Few words in American history are invoked as often as those from the preamble to the Declaration of Independence, published nearly 250 years ago. And few are more difficult to define. The music, and the economy, of “all men are created equal” make it both universal and elusive, adaptable to viewpoints — social, racial, economic — otherwise with little or no common ground. How we use them often depends less on how we came into this world than on what kind world we want to live in.

It’s as if “All men are created equal” leads us to ask: “And then what?”

“We say ‘All men are created equal’ but does that mean we need to make everyone entirely equal at all times, or does it mean everyone gets a fair shot?” says Michael Waldman, president of the Brennan Center for Justice, which promotes expanded voting rights, public financing of political campaigns and other progressive causes. “Individualism is baked into that phrase, but also a broader, more egalitarian vision. There’s a lot there.”

Thomas Jefferson helped immortalize the expression, but he didn’t invent it. The words in some form date back centuries before the Declaration and were even preceded in 1776 by Virginia’s Declaration of Rights, which stated that “all men are by nature equally free and independent.” Peter Onuf, a professor emeritus at the University of Virginia whose books include “The Mind of Thomas Jefferson,” notes that Jefferson himself did not claim to have said something radically new and wrote in 1825 that the Declaration lacked “originality of principle or sentiment.”

The Declaration was an indictment of the British monarchy, but not a statement of justice for all. For the slave owning Jefferson “and most of his fellow patriots, enslaved people were property and therefore not included in these new polities, leaving their status unchanged,” Onuf says. He added that “did not mean he did not recognize his enslaved people to be people, just that they could only enjoy those universal, natural rights elsewhere, in a country of their own: emancipation and expatriation.”

Hannah Spahn, a professor at the John F. Kennedy Institute in Berlin and author of the upcoming “Black Reason, White Feeling: The Jeffersonian Enlightenment in the African American Tradition,” says that a draft version of the Declaration made clear that Jefferson meant “all humans” were created equal but not necessarily that that all humans were equal under the law. Spahn, like such leading Revolutionary War scholars as Jack Rakove, believes that “all men are created equal” originally referred less to individual equality than to the rights of a people as a whole to self-government.



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