Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

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Historical and Modern Perspectives of Racial Equality

Res Publica

July 1998

by Jennifer Zahn


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.


These lines, penned by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence, have established a legacy of equality for the citizens of the United States since its birth in 1776. Throughout history, this legacy has been open to many interpretations. Questions of equality have been continually raised regarding race, sex, and other distinctive factors that separate humanity. Many have speculated about Jefferson’s true meaning when he mentioned equality in this excerpt from the declaration , the United States’ original proclamation that made its inhabitants "one people." These words created, among Americans, a moral bond of principle, and the factors of time and circumstance have shaped the meaning in a variety of ways. However, Jefferson did have a distinctive meaning implied within his words. What was the intent of the father of these eloquent phrases, the author of these expressions that lay the foundation of equality in America?

In dissecting the opening phrase, "We hold these truths to be self-evident," one finds that Jefferson asserted a powerful concept. That is, the mind can perceive what is truly right. Once one reflects on that truth he cannot deny it thus making the truth self-evident. However, it is important to note that these truths are not innate; otherwise every political system would be based on these principles, and that in itself makes the American regime most unique. The first self-evident truth states that all men are created equal. Jefferson, being a student of political theorist John Locke, perceived all men as equals in the sense that they are equally free. This does not imply that all men are equal in their talents and intellectual faculities. All men are free based on the commonality of their humanity. Thus humanity is the only requirement.

The meaning of Jefferson’s wieldy statement of equality came under speculation in 1857, eighty-one years after its birth, during the court case of Dred Scott v. Sanford. Scott was a slave who questioned whether his residence on free soil had changed his status as a slave. Consequently, Chief Justice Roger Taney raised the question whether Scott, a slave and a person of color, had the right to sue in a federal court of law. The heart of the matter was turned into this key question- Is Scott a citizen, and what rights does he have? To answer this question, Taney went back to Jefferson’s words in the Declaration.

Taney first speculated that Jefferson’s words, bearing the concepts of equality, seemed to include the humanity in its entirety yet only on the surface. Taney, in the Dred Scott case, called for thought to transcend these shallow depths and delve into uncharted waters that sought Jefferson’s and the other Founders’ true intentions.


But it is too clear to dispute, that the enslaved African race were not intended to be included, and formed no part of the people who framed and adopted this Declaration.


With this phrase, Taney laid a foundation for arguments that would later be disputed by Abraham Lincoln. Chief Justice Taney advocated this document was only intended to include whites in terms of equality, believing his argument was consistent with the thoughts and attitudes of the day. He asserted that the Founders were men of honor, incapable of advocating principles that were not parallel with their true beliefs. In other words, they were not hypocrites. By this token, Taney concluded this to be the universal feeling of the white race, which he supported with historical evidence. Blacks were not embraced in this principle of equality-based ideals, obvious to Taney because of the widespread practice of slavery; the Missouri Compromise, a law centered around the subjugation of slaves by way of ownership laws; and the Founders did not abolish slavery in the Declaration of Independence or any other federal document. In the Constitution, blacks were viewed on a lower level of
equality, manifested as such by the fugitive slave clause. In Taney’s eyes, all of this was essentially a blatant and intentional inequality of rights. If a black was freed, it was only because a white man had willed it so. Therefore, by these tokens, equality lacked any association with the natural law that held humanity above all. This interpretation elicited a response from Abraham Lincoln.

Lincoln disagreed with Taney’s critique of the Founders implications of equality. Lincoln accused him of:


….doing this obvious violence to the plain unmistakable language of the Declaration (Readings in American Government, "The Meaning of the Declaration of Independence," 10).


Lincoln believed that the Founders intended to include all men, but all men were never presumed equal in color, size, intellect, moral developments, or social capacity. This simply means that men are not all going to be equally tall, attractive, skilled in particualar areas, etc. However, men are equal in their possession of unalienable rights, such as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Lincoln asserted that rights depended on a common humanity and not race, while Taney seemed to believe that the issue was circumscribed around it. Lincoln claimed that if Taney’s premise were true, then the basis for the judgement of equality would be the British. That would be because at the time of the Founding, the Founders and most of the population of the colonies were of British decent. If Americans were intended to be equal to British men, then American citizens would still be oppressed like British society, and the Declaration of Independence would not be viewed as such a rev
olutionary document. If Americans were intended to be the equivalent of the British, then perhaps this theory would have manifested itself in the form of a king. The closing of Lincoln’s points on Taney’s comparison to the British is that those who are white but not British, in American society, would then be inferior to those who were British.

In examining Jefferson’s first draft of the Declaration of Independence, his views on equality and the issue of slavery are more clear. Jefferson describes slaves using the terms Amen" and "people," clearly showing that he valued slaves as equally human. These phrases had to be omitted from the document or else the southern states would have refused to accept it. This is also the reason why slavery was not abolished in this document or the Constitution, otherwise the south would have refused to join the Union. While the Founders knew their first priority was the preservation of the Union, they still planted the seeds for the abolition of slavery. Lincoln noted this,


They did not mean to assert the obvious untruth, that all were then actually enjoying that equality, nor yet, that they were about to confer it immediately upon them. In fact they had no power to confer such a boon. They simply meant to declare the right, so that the enforcement of it might follow as fast as circumstances should permit (Readings in American Government, "The Meaning of the Declaration of Independence," 10).


With these strong foundational interpretations of equality having established the precedence for the future, it is necessary to analyze how the twentieth century views this belief. In an article in the New York Times entitled "Judge Denounces U.S. Visa Policies Based on Race or Looks," visa officers at the United States Consulate are being accused of unfairly denying foreigners visas based on their skin color, ethnic background, or the way they look. Federal District Court Judge Stanley Sporkin, "….said in a decision last month that the visa policies in Sao Paulo were clearly illegal." Yet visa policies "instruct visa officials to rely heavily upon factors such as physical appearance and national origin when adjudicating the applications," Sporkin also wrote. However, these credentials represent a huge inequality, for principle tells us that it is illegal to discriminate based on color or origin. In many cases, Asians are denied visas bas
ed on stereotypes that imply that they are known for fraud. Is this equality? Principles clearly need to be vindicated in these instances. This case shows that inequality based on race still exists in America.

In another The New York Times article, "Minority Applications Rise In California, Easing Fears," a more upbeat view of equality is given.


Despite fears that abandoning affirmative action policies in California would sharply decrease the number of minority applicants to the University of California system, there has been a small but significant increase in applications from (minorities).


Ward Connerly, a black businessman outspoken against affirmative action, called this development in the university "a validation." This article shows that the Founders were correct in saying equality is based only on the virtue of humanity and not equality of looks, color, or intelligence. Equality is not manifested in affirmative action, these programs topple equality off balance by giving racial preference. Eventually, the equality of humanity will be enough, as the Founders intended.

These two articles show that views on equality have not changed drastically since the days of Jefferson and Lincoln, in fact, they remain quite the same. Inequality based on race is still present in America, yet the Judge Sporkins and the Ward Connerlys of the world who still believe in the form of equality asserted by the Declaration of Independence will continue to fight to uphold those sacred principles.

Jennifer Zahn is a freshman from Tiffin, Ohio majoring in Political Science and English. Over the summer she interned for the National Association of Manufacturers in Washington, D.C.



Works Cited:

Honan, William H. "Minority Applications Rise In California, Easing Fears." The New York Times. 29 Jan. 1998, late ed.: sect. A1.

Nichols, Mary P., ed. Readings in American Government. Dubuque: Kendall-Hunt, 1996.

Shenon, Phillip. "Judge Denounces U.S. Visa Policies Based on Race or Looks." The New York Times. 23 Jan. 1998, pg. A20.

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