Thursday, May 15, 2014

On Equality

“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. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…”

These are the opening, often quoted lines of the Declaration of Independence, as written by Thomas Jefferson and edited by Benjamin Franklin. I often wonder what it is they were thinking when they wrote them as they are so demonstrably untrue. First, slavery still existed during the Revolution, but surely they did not mean Blacks were equal to Whites (perhaps they didn’t think Blacks were “men?”). And certainly they did not believe Blacks had a “right” to liberty (or even, I suppose, the right to the “Pursuit of Happiness.”

Second, I note also they said nothing about the rights of women. While it is true that “men” can at times be the generic term for “people,” it seems unlikely to me that was true in this case as women were still believed to be the property of their husbands and certainly did not have the same rights as men.

Third, they cannot have been unaware of the obvious fact that all men are not, in fact, created equal. There remains to this day the nagging belief on the part of some that Blacks are not equal to Whites. But even more obvious is the undeniable facts that some men are larger than others, some stronger than others, some smarter than others, some healthier than others, some more highly motivated, some more talented in some areas than others, some more creative, thoughtful, and some could work harder, lift more, last longer, fight better, and so on and on. These completely obvious conditions are undeniable, the Founding Fathers had to have been aware of them. They could not have been thinking about the equality of wealth as they were among the most wealthy people of the time and certainly were not thinking of dividing wealth up equally.

So what could it have meant to them when they thought it was “self-evident…” and what of “inalienable Rights?” It could not possibly have been self-evident, nor did every man have rights to liberty and the pursuit of happiness. If physically and behaviorally all men were obviously and demonstrably not equal, and if they were also not equally wealthy, what could they have been thinking?

I confess I have pondered over this for years and I still do not understand why it was written as It was. It makes no sense now and I suggest that in the context of the times when it was authored it made even less sense then. To me, extrapolating from “inalienable rights” and “consent of the governed,” I conclude the only interpretation that makes sense to me is that all men (men then, “persons” now ) have an inalienable right to vote (consent to be governed).But I don’t believe this is exactly what it meant to them as they must have had a narrow and idiosyncratic definition of “men,” probably having to do only with White men who were also property owners or some such thing.   

 In any case there are now Republicans who do not believe all persons have an inalienable right to vote as they are busily engaged in stripping away such rights wherever they can. Unhappily, at the moment it appears that no one truly has the inalienable right to life, liberty, or the pursuit of happiness. When the President can kill you at his discretion, when your every move and conversation is recorded, and when you must work for wages that keep you in poverty, these so-called “Constitutional Rights” are no more than “pie in the sky.” Need I bother to say anything about the inequality of wealth? 

I don’t truly know what the Founding Fathers had in mind but I doubt it was anything like the current situation and I am not enough of a historian to pursue it. Just be careful when you hear various people spouting out loudly about constitutional rights.

“The dead should not rule the living.” 


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