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All Men are Created Equal? Part I

Updated on June 12, 2012

The History

Declaration of Independence, July 4th 1776 …We hold these truths to be self-evident, that“All Men are Created Equal”…As one of most eloquent phrases in the Declaration of Independence, “All Men are Created Equal” is a statement that has inspired many generations of Americans and immigrants from all over the world to seek out their hope of a better life in the “land of the free and the home of the brave”.

This ideal has the potential in and of itself of being a sound fundamental principle of self-government. At times it has been just that. Within the confines of moments that have displayed our greatness as a nation come events that characterize that potential. Such as taking the Industrial Revolution to a place where innovation and invention created changes in the standard of living for the entire world, that had never been seen before. It is a history of the development of industrial output that made it possible to win World War II. Going to the moon in 1969, as a show of what technology was capable of achieving. Then just two years later where the events of Apollo 13 showed how ingenuity in times of crisis can bring out the best possible outcome when people work together for a common cause.

At other times, it has been an example of what happens when prosperity in the name of progress has come at the expense of its people. The genocide perpetrated by the Nazis in World War II, is nothing compared to what our own American countrymen did to justify destroying the Native American way of life.

It was the Trail of Tears that forced the Five Civilized Tribes to Oklahoma. Ironically one of those tribes the Cherokee had made an honest effort to establish a Constitution of their own. It was the British that first established the policy of paying for scalps the Americans who adopted that policy and then blamed it on Native Americans. This was followed by the destruction of the buffalo. These were acts of violence perpetrated by Americans for the good of the country at the expense of fellow Americans.

No episode of this era more describes the attitude of Americans of the time than the events that lead to the Battle of the Little Bighorn. A treaty signed by the government promising the lands of the Black Hills to Native Americans was breached by them when gold was discovered. When the Native Americans tried to defend their rights, they were systematically massacred by none other than Colonel George Armstrong Custer. He was treated as a hero after his death to manipulate the American public into supporting policies that all but eliminated an entire culture of people.

To me, it just does not appear that “All Men are Created Equal” has been taken seriously enough to have been able to achieve the full potential of what it implies. Pursuant to what affect it should have had or should have on our society as a whole. What does it mean to say “All Men are Created Equal” and more to the point, what should “All Men are Created Equal” mean for us today?

I look at this phrase “All Men are Created Equal” as a fundamental work in progress. An ideal at the inception of the thought process that gave it life was born of the many struggles and hardships that elevated it from the notion that something about these circumstances isn’t right or fair to a spring board of the thinking process that changed the way we perceived our world and ultimately how we saw ourselves.

This was a phrase born of the Age of Enlightenment. It was when men started to look at their own lot in life and the world around them in a different way. When the empirical authority as in the King, and the fear of religious recrimination as in the power of the church, gave way to a measured study of reason that he applied to himself in the form of basic scientific analysis. The idea that a man was not just a product of his environment, but was an individual capable of taking into account his surroundings both physical and mental realizing that he had the power to think for himself.

Thus man was seeing himself as both a creature of the laws of nature while being subjected to the authority of the King and the Church. The latter demanding their right to exercise control over their fellow man because they controlled both the economy and the process by which men were allowed to be educated. Basically it was done in the form of who was allowed to be educated as it pertained to the perpetuation of the King and the Church.

It was an issue that stimulated innovation and invention that would bring about the
Industrial Revolution. With it came wealth and power that was never dreamed possible. Because the faster goods could be produced and moved into the market place, the faster profits could be realized. Services were born of the need to support travel to the market place. These services developed into industries in their own right associated with the growing demand created by the Industrial Revolution. These changes would eventually turn a predominately rural society into a massive urban society.

Though things improved for society as a whole there was always someone who thought that they were more entitled to the fruits of their labors. They were happy to take your money, but they were just as happy to limit how much money you had. They focused on enriching their lot in life and did not care to concern themselves with yours. They focused on being the master, while they were content to allow the rest of us to eat the scraps from the master’s table.

Idealistic as the Age of Enlightenment tried to be, all that really took place was that more people were allowed to sit at the table with those in the know. Because it was believed that this was the most effective way to keep the peace and keep control over the rest of the populace. The onset of the ideals associated with the Magna Carta was not focused so much on the masses it was on those who demanded a greater standing in the affairs of the King and the Church, which affected them greatly. They were demanding some measure of control over their own fate while they did the business of the Realm and the Church. These ideas associated with the Magna Carta as a major focus of British law were fundamental to the arguments posed by Americans in 1776.

It was the end of the Dark Ages, and the beginning of a world of commerce that was starting to reach out to the ends of the Earth. It was not that things for all people did not get better, they did get better. But poverty and an injustice, and a fundamental lack of accountability from those who were better able to deal with the issues of a developing world focused on themselves and their own success than they did to accept their responsibility to the whole. As a rural society in those days it was hard for people to fend for themselves, but not impossible.

Even in America, at the birth of the Constitution poverty and injustice still prevailed. Slavery was an issue set aside for another time. In order to establish the Constitution as the law of the land the Southern States demanded that their form of economic security in form of slavery be maintained. They not only wanted to keep their slaves they needed their slaves to do the work no one else was willing to do. Because slave owners had no intention of paying anymore for the work they needed done than they absolutely had to.

As a compromise the Southern slave population was denied an equal footing pursuant how their numbers affected measuring the populace. The population of each state used to establish how many members the House of Representatives would serve from each state. This being the group of the federal government that was supposed to represent the population of the country as a whole. Had the Southern States been allowed to utilize sum of the slave population that advantage would have made it very hard for the Northern States to compete for and challenge legislation in the U.S. Congress.

As it was, at that time and all the way to the Civil War, the Southern States dominated the US economy. Cotton was king and so was tobacco. Many Northern States were happy to keep it that way, because they ruled the sea lanes. Their industry was providing the transportation that took cotton and tobacco to the far reaches of the globe, commodities of all kinds everywhere, and slaves to the South.

Though there existed a morale concern over the institution of slavery, the policies in legislation at that time focused more on the effect slavery was having over the economies of the various regions of the country. To have been able to abolish slavery before the Civil War, the Northern States would have enjoyed a greater autonomy with the Southern States. But as the result of the Civil War the South is still one of the poorest regions of the country.

Not that Lincoln would have wanted it that way, either. Because it was his death that paved the way for the radicals in the Republican Party to punished the South for the Civil War. It is an abuse which has left behind a resentment that lingers to the modern day. The Emancipation Proclamation did as Lincoln had hoped. It appeased the British and the rest of the modern world, while it destroyed any chance the South would have of becoming a nation in its own right. It was then that the phrase “All Men are Created Equal” would take center stage as the defining characteristic of the Civil War, when Lincoln used it as the focus of his Gettysburg Address.

On the one side of the debate about the Civil War, the South claims that Lincoln was not concerned about slavery, which is true. He was focused on keep the nation to together. He was willing to tolerate the Institution of Slavery to save the country from itself.

However, he said, in his speech about the U.S. Supreme Court case Dred Scott v. Sanford, 1857, “…They (the framers of the Constitution) meant to set up a standard maxim for a free society, which should be familiar to all, and revered by all; constantly looked to, constantly labored for, and even though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated, and thereby constantly spreading and deepening its influence and augmenting the happiness and value of life to all people of all color everywhere. The assertion that “All Men are Created Equal” was of no practical use in effecting our separation from Great Britain: and it was placed not in the Declaration, nor for that, but for future use. Its authors meant it to be, thank God, it is now proving itself, a stumbling block to those who in after times might seek to turn a free people back into the hateful paths of despotism. They knew the proneness of prosperity to breed tyrants, and they meant that when such should reappear in this fair land and commence their vocation they should find left to them at least one tough nut to crack…”

The concept "All Men are Created Equal" calls to mind what I said before that it is a work in progress. The ideals associated with the Magna Carta were not focused on all people in the society. It was focused on those who understood that they had a stake in the business of the Realm and the Church. The King and the Church responded in the long run by focusing on what it would take to keep the peace and maintain control over the affairs of state. That was a step foreward in the sense that more people were given the chance to control some measure of their own destiny.

However, the Magna Carta did establish the language and the thought process that would lead to the idea that man could and should be allowed to decide for himself what he thought was right and wrong. The idea is that you don't agree because that is what people want from you. You agree because that is what you want to do.

When our forefathers challenged the British in 1776 it was with this idea that the King respect the rights of the colonies the same way it respected all British citizens. The war that insued clearly demonstrated that the British were not interested. But, it was the ideal of "All Men are Created Equal" that came out of this struggle that made America the first country in the history of the world to to establish a genuine form of self-government.

On the one hand it is a great ideal. On the other hand, even the history of the country has proved how difficult an ideal it is to achieve. The Native Americans were treated as sovereign entities in a varity of treaties that in the long run turned into a license to destroy a culture that allegedly would not conform to the emerging republic.

Slaves were brought to this country to do the dirty work nobody wanted to do. Plantation owners weren't going to pay anymore for the work needed done than they absolutely had to pay. The issue of slavery set aside until the Civil War, because the Constittutuion does not exist without being able to set it aside. Whether anybody wanted to face it or not, it was going to get dealt with. It wasn't so much about human rights as it was about the economic issues that surrounded it. Slavery did heavily favor the Southern States economically. It did leave the Northern States at a disadvantage.

LIncoln's legacy is that he did what he felt he had to to save the country from itself. The fact that slavery ended in one very public form did not mean that the issue was over. The idea that a Black Man could become President of the United States has offended sensibilities that clearly domonstrate that "All Men are Created Equal" has achieved some measure of the potential, but no without a struggle.

The other side of the equation is that America has had some extraordinary moments that make her history something of a two edged sword. The Industrial revolution changed society and the world forever. A standard of living unequaled in the anals of all history. Many older societies that took great strides in developing into modern states but nothing that matches where the world has come since the middle of the 19th century. Wealth that nobody has ever seen.

The industrial output that helped win World War II, is one such episode that showed what America could do when the chips were down. She helped keep the British in the war until America could throw her might into it. American industrial might did not win the war by itself. But the ability to help the Allies get it done speaks volumes about her part in it.

In 1969, when America landed men on the moon it was a show of what progress the Industrial Revolution had brought to the world. The ability to imagine it and then make it happen. An extraordinary achievement. An extraordinary suggestion of the potential.

Then in 1971, with the events of Apollo 13, came an extraordinary moment that showed what both technology and ingenuity could do when people worked together to overcome the impossible. The men in Apollo 13 were for all practical purposes dead. The command module crippled and the only life support the lunar landing module. I remember that it was such an emotional event that the school took all od us to a large room to witness the events that lead up to splash down. The fear on the one side of how we would feel if it turned into a bad day, and the opportunity to witness history if it turned into a triumph. I see this event as a solid example of how for one brief moment in time, the world regardless of political, religious, or individual differences was united and focused and proud of being human.


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    • Petra Vlah profile image

      Petra Vlah 5 years ago from Los Angeles

      "All men are created equal?" Sure they are! the only problem is that: "some are more equal than others" as Orwell said. Your hub is informative and interesting, but way too long - maybe a 3 part series would have solved the problem