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Teaching "All Men are Created Equal" (Part II)

Pulling Down the Statue of King George III, N.Y.C., Johannes Adam Simon Oertel ca. 1859, depicts the destruction of a statue of the monarch in the wake of the reading of the Declaration of Independence, 1776.

Note: This is the second part of Jeff Schneider's essay on teaching the content and contradictins of the Declaration of Independence. Part I is here

The assignment for the second day is to find the words where Jefferson discusses revolution and describes government and democracy. Unfortunately even though the idea that “all men are created equal” is the basis of the right to revolution, we will have to put off most of that discussion until the last day. However, here is a key sentence describing the relation between revolution and government:

(T)hat to secure these (natural) rights governments are instituted among men deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed: that whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles, … as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.

The causal relationships among natural rights, agency and government are at the heart of the description of the right to revolution. It is these lines that inspired peoples all over the world to take their fate in their hands and overthrow tyrannical rule. It is these ideas that inspired Tom Paine to write in the first edition of Common Sense:

O ye that love mankind! Ye that oppose not only the tyranny, but the tyrant, stand forth! Every spot of the old world is overrun with oppression. Freedom hath been hunted round the globe. Asia, Africa have long expelled her! Europe regards her like a stranger and England hath given her warning to depart. O! receive the fugitive, and prepare in time an asylum for mankind.

On the third day we discuss the meanings of the right to revolution and the paragraph leading to the Grievances and the conclusion, sometimes called the declaration of war. The last lines declare that all the previous ideas and grievances will be defended at all costs.

And for the support of Divine Providence we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor.

The fourth day is devoted to an Oprah show in which she interviews the two white and two black descendants of Thomas Jefferson. 

I showed it up to the end of the comment by the great historian Annette Gordon-Reed, who speaks from the audience. It is about halfway through. The discussion is riveting: a real discussion between blacks and whites about race, heritage and truth in history. “All men are created equal” is its background. Students are fascinated by the straightforward exchanges on America's creed and its complexities. Many questions are raised in this discussion including passing for white and the shocking actions of Jefferson, who took the enslaved half-sister of his deceased wife as a concubine when she was a young teenager. The story of Sally Hemings could be a week at least in itself. Oprah is one of the few TV personalities who could make a success out of such a show.

Now we are ready for the last day of Declaration classes in my series. The assignment is for the students to list all the meanings they could think of for “All men are created equal.” Who is equal in the Declaration? The list grows as we talk. First there are the white men over 21 who own property or pay a minimum of taxes. These men comprised the vast majority of the voters in all the states. However were there other groups of people to whom the Declaration was addressed? Let us consider some possibilities. Could George Washington and Thomas Jefferson have fought the war by themselves? All the troops could not come from the elite family members of the Continental Congress. To be sure, the protesters of the 1760s and '70s were essential for the development of the revolutionary movement. They were not voters by and large, yet they were essential to the movement.

If we consider the dates we had discussed during the first class for the Revolutionary War, the first battle was fought in April 1775, and the Treaty with Great Britain was signed in 1783, but the date of the Declaration was July 4th, 1776. One might then ask why the Declaration was written so long after the first battle and before the treaty, or why it was written at all. One purpose, besides recruitment of troops, was to gain support for the war and the organizations in the states and local committees of public safety: enforcing boycotts and discouraging Americans from supporting the Loyalists. In addition the Declaration itself was addressed to the supporters of democracy and opponents of Great Britain around the world. The Americans were declaring that they were equal to all the peoples of the world, including the British people. The line before the Grievances was “(L)et these facts be submitted to a candid world.” The Continental Congress expected honest people and countries all over the world to accept the long list of grievances against the king of Great Britain. France, Spain and Holland eventually gave money and political support to the Americans. Generals and troops from Prussia, France and Poland supported the Revolution.

I should make clear that when we discuss “All men are created equal,” we are on a series of simultaneous tracks. First the clause is part of the natural law argument at the beginning of the document: the Revolution is “impelled” by the laws of the universe. Then it is an element in the relation between the people and the government: Since the government is founded by the people they have the right to “alter or abolish it” when the government threatens their natural rights to liberty and safety. As we saw in the quote above on democracy and revolution, it is their government that they built to “secure” their rights. All men have these rights and the responsibility to defend themselves against tyrannical government.

Thus equality is a law of nature, and a political factor in democracy. Equality is an organizing concept, as we have seen. Finally, equality is a concept that breaks through the prejudices of thousands of years of hereditary rights in Europe.

Now we come to the question of why the king is addressed as “He.” If there were a delay in a response to this question, I asked my students what happens when you are at a large family gathering and, while you are talking to your cousin, you refer to your father as “he.” Some of the students laugh. Some are dumbfounded. As we say in the vernacular of southern Long Island, where I grew up, you would get “slapped upside the head.” Demystifying the king is the key here. During the coronation ceremony in England the king is anointed – in secret – with a holy oil that causes him to attain a status between man and God. He obtains thaumaturgic powers: divine right.  If you are going to have a revolution against the king, he must be a man like anyone else. Calling him “He” strips him of his mystery.

As we have been pointing out since the beginning of this journey through the Declaration of Independence, the clause “All men are created equal” embodies the hopes and some of the worst nightmares of every American. Who was not equal or addressed in the empowering clause for white men? Women, Blacks, most of whom were slaves, and those white men without property. Native Americans were also not included in the so-called equality promoted by the Declaration. It is usually stated that about 6% of the total population could vote. New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and New Hampshire all allowed free black men to vote if they met property requirements which, at least in New York, were higher than for whites. Women of any race could vote in New Jersey if they were widowed or not married, but in 1807 the state changed the relevant clause in their constitution from inhabitants to male inhabitants. More than 40,000 Blacks ran away during the Revolution and by 1800 there were nearly 60,000 free Blacks in the US.  They and their allies frequently petitioned the states for freedom based on the bill of rights of the constitution of Massachusetts, for example, which stated that “all men are born free and equal.” Here are the essential parts of one of those petitions:

To the honorable Counsel and House of Representatives for the State of Massachusetts in General Court Assembled, January 13, 1777:

The petition of a great number of blacks detained in a state of slavery in the bowels of a free and Christian country humbly show … that they have in common with all other men a natural and inalienable right to that freedom which the Great Parent of the heavens has bestowed equally on all mankind.... (We petition) your honors... (to) cause an act of the Legislature to be passed whereby they may be restored to the enjoyments of that which is the natural right of all men – and their children who were born in this land of liberty – not to be held as slaves.

The drama in this cannot be denied. These Black petitioners took only 6 months and 9 days after the signing of the Declaration to demand freedom for themselves.  It was based legally not only on the clause referred to above in the Massachusetts bill of rights, but it also quoted the Declaration's assertion of “inalienable” rights and claimed the natural right of equality for “all man(kind.)” These petitioners changed the meaning of men in “all men are created equal.” It was a verbal act of agency that resulted in a legal ruling that slavery in Massachusetts was unconstitutional, codified under the new Massachusetts Constitution of 1780. The Declaration gave them an opening to claim their freedom; something that the US Constitution later denied them. There are no natural rights written into the Constitution of 1787.

I taught these lessons in class after class for more than 30 years. My students welcomed the explanations and close readings of the founding documents. They were proud of learning from the sources and figuring out the truth about our founding as they read and discussed. They took it as a matter of course that they were learning the history of our country in all its complexity. We later read the Constitution, the Articles of Confederation, the Seneca Falls Declaration, the 4th of July Oration by Frederick Douglass, the speeches and letters of Lincoln, the platform of the Populist Party, the Supreme Court cases of Plessy v. Ferguson, Korematsu v. USBrown v. Board of Education, the Inaugural Addresses of FDR and JFK, and Martin Luther King, Jr.'s  Letter from Birmingham Jail. I could not wait to get to class to discuss these great works. It was a privilege to teach. I tried to grab my students by the brain and run. I gave them the documents and we learned together. Race was not the only topic we covered, but it was a frequent subject. I did not confront their prejudices; instead, I had them confront the ideas of our history and how our leaders and ordinary people explained them. We covered strikes from the Lowell Mills to the Great Railroad Strike of 1877 to the sit-downs if the 1930s. We read the obituary of one of the survivors of the Triangle Fire and an article by a leader of the of the garment workers. We watched sections of  “Eyes on the Prize,” where they learned that agency was a way of life for the Civil Rights workers.

Over time students will see that there are alternative ways of looking at the world different than the one in which some of them grew up. Eventually they can come to understand that racism is virulent and dangerous to peace in society and physically dangerous to Blacks, Hispanics, Asians and Indigenous peoples in the US. I taught American History with all its flaws. It is not impossible, but it takes intellectual effort and trust that your students can understand and learn how to think for themselves.

The Declaration is complex. It contains soaring rhetoric and grievances that can pull at your heartstrings and a call for equality that can make you want to believe every word. But it is also riveted to and riven by slavery and hypocrisy. The idea that these slaveholders and their non-slaveholding allies were calling for freedom in the name of a humanity that was so narrowed by race, religion and wealth is appalling. Yet it is still a powerful document even when we understand the context: the contradictions of the real lives of the people and the undemocratic character of the government of the United States. Nevertheless we can face all this in class without blaming our students or their parents for the sins of our Founding Fathers.