Friday, February 26, 2010 2/26/10 - all men are created equal

In today's excerpt  the concept of equality
as expressed in the Declaration of
Independence had the purpose of conveying
America's right was the right to be equal with
other nations. But in the decades after
independence, and culminating in Lincoln's
Gettysburg address, Americans began reading
the Declaration's ringing affirmation
that "all men are created equal" in different

"What the Declaration of Independence was
really intended to declare was this plain
fact: that a new people were
preparing to assume their 'separate and equal
among the nations of the world, bid political
adieu to their
British countrymen, and seek the political
recognition to
which 'the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God
them.' ...

"Yet in calling this sovereign people into
existence, the authors of the Declaration and
the Constitution uneasily confronted one
morally embarrassing challenge. In 1776 slavery
was legal in all the new states, but the vast
majority of African and African American
slaves were concentrated in the
plantation states, from Maryland south to the
frontier outpost of Georgia. Were these
hundreds of thousands of slaves
who constituted this exploited labor force
capable of becoming part of this new American
people? In a fiery passage of
the Declaration, Jefferson tried to finesse
this problem by
blaming the British monarchy for imposing the
of slavery on unwilling American colonists.
Congress deleted
this entire passage, not only because many
southern delegates were committed to slavery,
but also because the delegates knew that many
colonists were all too happy to draw
their own prosperity from the sweat of other
brows. Eleven
years later the Federal Convention faced a
similar problem.
How could slaves be counted for purposes of
when they could never be regarded as citizens
in any conceivable sense of the term? To be a
slave was to lack all legal
rights - to be neither citizen nor subject,
but simply an involuntary object of laws
imposed on you and your descendants. The
framers' solution - to call slaves 'other
and count each of them as three-fifths of a
free person for
purposes of allocating representation among
the states - was
a mark of the moral embarrassment that later
led abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison
to denounce the Constitution Of 1787 as 'a
covenant with death.'

"That Constitution, in a sense, nearly died
with the election of Abraham Lincoln to the
presidency in 1860 and the
ensuing secession crisis of 1861. But it was
revived with the
three Reconstruction amendments that freed
the slaves, affirmed a new version of equal
citizenship, and prohibited (at
least in principle) 'race, color, or previous
condition of servitude' from being used to
deny the right to vote. The new
constitutional vision of the 1860s reflected
principles that
many Americans had come to ascribe to the
Declaration of
Independence well after its adoption. The
equality Americans claimed in 1776 was the
right to become a nation like
other nations. But in the decades after
independence, Americans began reading the
Declaration's ringing affirmation
that 'all men are created equal' in different
terms. Now it
challenged the hierarchies of social class
and legal status,
race and gender that the congressional
delegates of 1776
could still take for granted. A vision of
equality among peoples was giving way
to one
of equality within a people. That
was how Lincoln restated the founding
proposition that 'all
men are created equal' in the Gettysburg
Address of 1863 - a
less formal and official document than the
texts reprinted
in this volume, but one that helped to
complete the vision
of peoplehood that Jefferson had first
articulated four score
and seven years earlier."

Jack N. Rakove, The Annotated U.S.
Constitution and Declaration of Independence,
Belknap Harvard, Copyright 2009 by the
President and Fellows of Harvard College, pp.


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