The land of equal opportunity has always been an oligarchy built upon the desires of the privileged few.
This article was made possible because of the generous support of DAME members. During our end of year funding drive, will you contribute just $5 a month to support our journalism?
From the moment Thomas Jefferson, the principal author of the Declaration of Independence, penned these words, the fight to control their meaning began:
“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,”
When analyzing the text, Dr. Danielle Allen, Ph.D., director of the Edmond & Lily Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University, has noted there is a “significant error” in the punctuation between the phrase “pursuit of happiness” and “That to secure these rights.” The punctuation between these phrases is often viewed as a period due to the original document’s threadbare parchment. Dr. Allen sees this punctuation as a comma or semicolon, and with that, an entirely different interpretation. “The logic of the sentence moves from the value of individual rights to the importance of government as a tool for protecting those rights… You lose that connection when the period gets added,” she says.
From this interpretation, Jefferson’s intention is to dissolve “all political connection” with the British monarch and set up a government whose sole purpose is to secure “unalienable Rights,” or natural rights, under the law. Natural rights are the universal rights we are born with, they cannot be taken or given away. They exist before any law is codified. Philosopher John Locke, who deeply influenced Jefferson, wrote, “Equality, wherein all the Power and Jurisdiction is reciprocal, no one having more than another.”
In other words, equality is a natural right. This is the brilliance of the Declaration of Independence, rightly declaring that we are all born with unalienable rights. While the Declaration of Independence is not a legally binding document, Jefferson did set up an aspirational intention for our government to codify those rights, but who did he intend to be covered in that codification?
As historian and Harvard law professor Annette Gordon-Reed states, “Jefferson’s vision of equality was not all-inclusive. Neither the enslaved nor women were part of it.” In other words, Jefferson failed to see the enslaved or women as part of the polity, even as both groups’ stolen and unpaid labor built the U.S. economy. Jefferson was contradictory as he cast dispersions at the British monarch for “a long train of abuses and usurpations” running roughshod over the natural rights of indentured servants, women living under coverture, and the enslaved. If equality is not all-inclusive, it is not all. Equality cannot exist in contradiction.
Inequality is built into hierarchy
It should come as no surprise that a 33-year-old white, landowning male, enslaver, and rapist, did not have women, Africans, or Indigenous people (who he openly disparaged in the Declaration of Independence) in mind when he penned “that all men are created equal.” It’s important to consider the historical context in which he was writing those words. Jefferson’s thinking was siloed as he envisioned a new representative government, severing all ties with a brutal monarch. Jefferson rightly understood that living under such tyranny was unnatural, and any system that was set up to impose cruelty onto the public was illegitimate. As Jefferson would say in 1790, “Every man, and every body of men on Earth, possesses the right of self-government… they receive it with their being from the hand of nature.” Jefferson was correct in all of this except in his incongruities: “every man” and “every body of man” is still exclusionary hierarchical thinking. Where there is hierarchy there is no equality. Jefferson also based many of his ideas on racist and misogynistic biological theories of that day. On women, he wrote in 1788, “The tender breasts of ladies were not formed for political convulsions.” His thoughts on Black people did not evolve much over his life. For instance, this, published in 1853: “Comparing [Black people] by their faculties of memory, reason, and imagination, it appears to me, that in memory they are equal to the whites; in reason much inferior.”
False theories attempting to promulgate racist, sexist, ableist, and transphobic ideas exist to keep constructed hierarchies in place, but now we have access to the most cutting-edge science that proves “we are all created equal.” We’ve known for over two decades now that all human beings are 99.9 percent genetically identical. There are no biological or genetic differences between races. As Ibram X. Kendi notes in How To Be Anti-Racist, “Racial ancestry doesn’t exist.” Race, like gender, is socially constructed to organize our society into hierarchies. These hierarchies produce inequalities and personal and social costs of preserving fixed gender roles. Everyone suffers when having to live in social constructs, including cishet white men who are often taught to embrace toxic male roles.
When Abigail Adams wrote to her husband, John Adams, “Remember the Ladies,” as he sat in the Continental Congress debating the new Code of Laws she warned, “Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands… Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could.”
Abigail had a brilliant mind, easily surpassing that of the other founders, yet her husband dismissed her rational request stating, “As to your extraordinary Code of Laws, I cannot but laugh… We know better than to repeal our masculine systems.”
Our “masculine system” was set up and maintained by wealthy, white, cisgender males to maintain power and privilege while disenfranchising women and non-white people. This was the impetus for the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention. Those advocating for women’s rights and abolition understood that the Declaration of Independence, U.S. Constitution, and Bill of Rights did not explicitly state that all who reside in America would be the beneficiary of codified unalienable rights. Women’s rights activist Elizabeth Cady Stanton specifically wanted to address the “tyranny of men” that Abigail Adams had laid out in her letter to her husband just 72 years earlier. In Stanton’s The Declaration of Sentiments, she addressed the lack of exactitude in Jefferson’s Declaration which failed to specifically mention women:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men and women are created equal.”
“The history of mankind is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations on the part of man toward woman, having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over her.”
Tyranny over her.
Adams and Jefferson actively sought to dissolve “all political connection” with the British monarch. A monarch who, Jefferson declared, had established “absolute tyranny over these States,” “obstructed the administration of justice,” and “destroyed the lives of our people.” It is a bitter irony that Jefferson and Adams failed to reconcile their own tyranny.
The U.S. Supreme Court removing our right to abortion is tyranny. SCOTUS stripping away the protection of the Voting Rights Act is tyranny. Republican-led legislatures penning a record number of voter suppression and anti-transgender laws—that is tyranny. Our humanity, our natural rights, and our equality have been up for debate when there should be no debate at all.
Debating whether Jefferson meant that “all men are created equal,” as the inclusive “all men,” or the exclusive “all men” in his interpretation of Locke’s natural rights, is a distraction. Legally stating equality for some means there is no equality at all.
We’ve witnessed our country flow toward equality when the Reconstruction amendments abolished slavery, brought citizenship to all people born in the U.S., and temporarily removed the barrier to the ballot box for Black men. The 19th Amendment brought women, mostly white women, suffrage. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 prohibited discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin, and made discriminatory voting practices illegal. In 1975, Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act would enfranchise language minorities, and the 1990 Americans with Disability Act would prohibit discrimination against people with disabilities. Now we are witnessing those equalities recede back to the “masculine system” Adams evoked. A system that keeps hierarchical structures in place that benefit very few and harm the many.
America’s mythical equality
Right now true equality in America, as far as the law is concerned, does not exist. The lack of precision in legislative language leaves empty spaces for charlatans to fill with their own injurious interpretations. These are people concerned only with controlling others and keeping hierarchies in place, and therefore they are determined to control the language around equality and other natural rights.
One such charlatan was Phyllis Schlafly who in 1973 formed “STOP ERA,” which was an acronym for “Stop Taking Our Privileges, Equal Rights Amendment.” Schlafly sold the ERA as a zero-sum outcome to her loyal followers. From The Washington Star, January 18, 1976:
“I think it is destructive and anti-family. I think their goals can be summed up as, first, for ERA, which is a takeaway of the legal rights that wives now have. Second, it is pro-abortion on demand, and government-financed abortion and abortion in government hospitals or any hospitals. Third, it’s for state nurseries, to get the children in the nurseries and off the backs of the women, the mothers. Fourth, it is for pro-lesbian legislation, which is certainly an anti-marriage movement. And fifth, it is for changing the school textbooks in order to eliminate the stereotype, what they call the stereotype, of women in the home as wives and mothers. So, I consider all five of their principles are anti-family.”
Schlafly herself was a wealthy well-educated lawyer, and her national name led her to run for Congress twice. She could not have legally done either were it not for the first wave of feminists at Seneca Falls. Had Schlafly been born just 100 years earlier, like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, she would’ve been barred from obtaining any collegiate degrees because of her gender. While Schlafly traversed the country insisting women stay home and tend to their children, domestic workers labored to raise her six children and run her household. Yet Schlafly successfully managed to make equality a debate. She denied equality as an unalienable right while concealing from the public that she herself was the beneficiary of the work women had done before her. Phyllis’s liberty was interconnected with other women whether she wanted to acknowledge or deny that fact. The reality is that our equality is interconnected and “bound up” with others here in America and around the world. When people like Schlafly, or Justice Clarence Thomas, or Justice Amy Coney Barrett, who belong to groups historically disenfranchised, work in tandem with those who are privileged to deny equality, they are denying their own. We must recognize that constructed hierarchies and binaries are antithetical to equality.
Nearing the 50th Anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson was ill and just a few weeks from his death. He penned a letter to Roger C. Weightman from his bedroom at Monticello on June 24, 1826, to say “… after half a century of experience and prosperity, continue to approve the choice we made. May it be to the world… All eyes are opened, or opening, to the rights of man.”
This was an older Jefferson, one who had only freed 10 of the 600 he had enslaved, yet he envisioned a world where all natural rights of man were honored.
Our humanity, our civil rights, and our equality are not up for debate. We should not even give an inch to those to claim otherwise. Codification and enforcement of rights are essential because the tyranny of those in power will continue to deny us our rights. Jefferson stated, “That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.” Abigail Adams stated in her letter to John Adams months before the signing of the Declaration of Independence, “If particular care and attention is not paid to the Ladies we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice, or Representation.”
We have a right to equality because it is already ours. The fault lies with those who would deny us that right. We must continue to codify equality at the federal level and amend our U.S. Constitution to enshrine that undeniable right.
Democracy Dies Behind Paywalls
Help keep DAME’s critical reporting available to all.
Our supporters believe in fairness, truth, and transparency. Your financial support today ensures that we can continue to build a more equitable media landscape. Sign up today during our end of year drive to support media dedicated to reporting on the issues that affect us all.