The declaration of independence and the notion of equality are topics that have been explored at length, especially due to disagreements regarding the meaning of equality. The term “all men are created equal” coined by Thomas Jefferson in 17761 arguably meant something different from how equality as it is applied today. The focus of this essay is to examine the people included in this statement at the time of writing. Additionally, it will explore whether the phrase has broadened to include other groups of people with time. At the time of writing, the term equality applied to the white men who were under British rule and who sought autonomy from it.
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Who was Included in the Declaration?
The Declaration of Independence emphasized that there was a need to separate Americans from the political powers to which they were connected. This idea was the opening statement before Jefferson continued to express the need to eliminate tyranny over the States. Therefore, it can be argued that the notion of equality of all men insinuated that they European men in the thirteen states needed to be held in equal terms to those in Britain in terms of political power. The thirteen states were colonies of Britain at the time of writing and a revolution was to take place to lead them to independence. At this time, slavery was still a norm, which insinuated that equality did not extend to them.
The fact that the equality of all men did not apply to other people can be illustrated using several examples. The first one is the observation that the declaration did not address the issue of slavery, which was to be questioned later by several authors. For instance, a keynote address in 1852 by Frederick Douglas2 examined what the Fourth of July meant to the slave. In this case, the speaker observed that equality meant liberty, humanity, and justice from the tyranny of Britain but not slavery and oppression. A second example is how the natives were treated by the whites in America before, during, and after the declaration. According to Gordon-Reed3, the Native Americans were not part of the Americans unless they met one key condition: assimilate with the white people. In this example, it means that the white Europeans were the people referred to by the declaration. It is important to notice that while these classifications are hardly visible in the declaration itself, it is how the different groups of people were treated even after the independence.
To illustrate that the two groups, natives and slaves, were not part of the declaration, it is important to notice that slavery continue several years after the independence. By the time Douglas4 was presenting his keynote address, 76 years had passed since the declaration, and slavery was still upheld by the government and the pollical classes. Racial inequality has persisted for millennia, which illustrates the fact that not all races were part of the declaration. Another example can be that women were also not included and that only the white males were deemed to be created equal. The words used in the declaration referenced only men, which can be interpreted to mean that men were superior in society. However, it can be argued that the language used at the time of writing preferred to use the term ‘man’ to mean human being.
There is evidence to suggest that gender inequality existed at and after the time of the declaration, which elaborates on the third example. Writings from such authors as Maya Angelou illustrated that legal protection of women was achieved many years later during the feminist movements5. There may be other examples of groups that were not regarded in the same manner in the declaration, including immigrants and members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) community6. The bottom line is that the declaration only regarded the white men in America as equal to those in Britain in an attempt to justify the call for independence. To Jefferson7, the connection to British rule was tyrannical. However, it is difficult to illustrate that he held the same sentiments to both the treatment of women and slaves in the colonies.
Broadening of the Phrase
The phrase “all men are created equal” has significantly broadened over time. The main argument is that the people who have been left out in the declaration have consistently sought to use the phrase in the pursuit of equality. Many such efforts have been documented in American history where certain groups have had to fight for their rights and to be treated equally. Most notably, the American Civil War started on April 12, 1861 and ended on April 8, 1865. One of the core themes was the abolishment of slavery. The result of the war included the abolishment of slavery across the United States. However, the key outcomes following the war are the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments to the United States constitution. These amendments are among the first attempts of the American society to use equality in an all-inclusive manner where gender, race, color, or past servitude were no longer hindrances to the application of equality. The case of West Virginia described by Zucconi8 illustrates how even the politics changed after the civil war. The state constitution became abolitionist despite the efforts of certain groups to fight abolitionism.
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The fight for racial equality has continued today with many incidences taking place to warrant the persistence of the movements. A resume of Reverend Addie Wyatt, a faith-based activist, can explain how equality was pursued by the former slaves. During the Great Depression Wyatt, as did most southern blacks, fled to Chicago and sought to work in a factory. She was a member and leader of several social movements that advocated for equality of the black workers both in Chicago and across the United States. Her activism is a testament to the fact that she and members of the movements believed that the concept of equality should be extended to them as members of a race. The focus on gender was also part of the activism as illustrated in such movements as the Coalition of Labor Union Women9. The civil rights movements had the effect of forcing legislation of equality. The bottom line is that equality of all means has been expounded through the social movements as more groups of people sought to be part of the declaration.
Feminism is another concept that can illustrate further broadening of the phrase that all men are created equal. Such writers as Maya Angelou wrote about feminism, using the term feminism to describe political, cultural, and economic movements seeking to establish legal protection and equal rights for women10. Sociological and political theories dealing with the issue of gender difference may have dominated the debate. However, it is the notion that all people are created equal that supported the key arguments against discriminatory behavior in American society. Black writers often wrestled with the desire to change an unjust society, especially the female writers who supported the ideals of feminism. After the civil war, it can be argued that the country entered an era of transformation where several groups took advantage of the opportunities presented to them in the fight against social injustices. Therefore, it can be argued that anti-racism, anti-discrimination, and anti-slavery movements have all sought to expand the interpretation and application of the concept of equality to include all social groups.
In conclusion, it can be argued that the phrase “all men are created equal” literally meant the male gender represented in the British colonies of America. Three examples have been presented to support this argument, which has focused on illustrating why other groups of people were left out. The persistence of slavery meant that Jefferson’s statement referred to the British colonial power over the slave masters. The Native Americans were also left out unless they were willing to assimilate with the whites. Lastly, women were also treated as inferiors and only movements helped them gain the same status as men. It has also been illustrated that the meaning has expanded throughout the history of the country. Most importantly, the civil rights movements, including those advocating for the equality of blacks and feminist activism, have sought to have equality applied to these discriminated groups.
Douglas, Frederick. “What to the slave is the Fourth of July?” 1852. Web.
Gordon-Reed, Annette. “Thomas Jefferson’s vision of equality was not all-inclusive. But it was transformative.” Time. 2020. Web.
Hameed, Madiha. “The concepts of feminine, slavery, and discrimination by Maya Angeloue.” Journal of Tikrit University for Humanities 26, no. 9 (2019): 19-32.
Jefferson, Thomas. “Declaration of Independence.” 1776. Web.
Rocksborough-Smith, Ian. “Reverend Addie Wyatt: Faith and the Fight for Labor, Gender, and Racial Equality by Marcia Walker-McWilliams.” Labor 80 (2017): 346-348.
Zucconi, Adam. “To “whiten” the mountains: Abolishing slavery in West(ern) Virginia, 1861−1863.” presentation, Virginia Forum, Longwood University, Farmville, Va 15 (2019): 67-96.
- Thomas Jefferson, “Declaration of Independence.” 1776. Web.
- Frederick Douglas, “What to the slave is the Fourth of July?” 1852. Web.
- Annette Gordon-Reed, “Thomas Jefferson’s vision of equality was not all-inclusive. But it was transformative.” Time. 2020. Web.
- Douglas, “What to the slave is the Fourth of July?”
- Madiha Hameed, “The concepts of feminine, slavery, and discrimination by Maya Angeloue.” Journal of Tikrit University for Humanities 26, no. 9 (2019): 19-32.
- Gordon-Reed, “Thomas Jefferson’s vision of equality was not all-inclusive.”
- Jefferson, “Declaration of Independence.”
- Adam Zucconi, “To “whiten” the mountains: Abolishing slavery in West(ern) Virginia, 1861−1863.” presentation, Virginia Forum, Longwood University, Farmville, Va 15 (2019): 67-96.
- Ian Rocksborough-Smith, “Reverend Addie Wyatt: Faith and the Fight for Labor, Gender, and Racial Equality by Marcia Walker-McWilliams.” Labor 80 (2017): 346-348.
- Hameed, “The concepts of feminine, slavery, and discrimination by Maya Angeloue.”