“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”
So Jefferson wrote, 242 years ago.
It “is” self-evident, if you think about it. According to Scientific American, 150 human beings are born somewhere on Earth every minute. In the eyes of God or from the perspective of the planet Jupiter, a human is a human, whether she is born in Berlin or Bombay, Cairo or Cambridge or Calcutta, Manhattan or Madrid or Mexico City. Two arms, two legs, one heart, two kidneys, finger nails, hair, a brain, a belly button, a unique capacity for language. As Shakespeare’s Shylock puts it:
“Hath not a person eyes? hath not a person hands, organs,
dimensions, senses, affections, passions? fed with
the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject
to the same diseases, healed by the same means,
warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as
a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed?
if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison
us, do we not die?”
Both President John F. Kennedy and George W. Bush (to take two quite different examples) said that every human being wants the same basic things. Food, shelter, clothing, the rule of law, a respect for basic rights, basic opportunity. On Jan. 6, 1941, Franklin Delano Roosevelt famously spoke of the Four Freedoms: Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Want and Freedom from Fear.
I remember reading the United Nations Declaration of Rights incised on the high wall of the magnificent new Human Rights Museum in Winnipeg not long ago. The museum designers clearly felt that the rights and dignities articulated in the U.N. Declaration of Rights were so universal, so irrefutable, so obvious — if you think about it — that they must be writ large and inset into the walls of the museum itself to make sure everyone who ever walked through those doors had to have a visceral encounter with the self-evident truths of human aspiration. I bought a poster of the Declaration as my only souvenir of that trip to Winnipeg.
If this is true, “that all men are created equal,” why do we see those UNICEF and Oxfam Africa relief ads on television showing 3-year-old children with distended stomachs and flies perching on their lips and eyelids? Those children were born randomly into the world, just as a child in Omaha, Neb., or Santa Monica, Calif., is born randomly into the world. And yet any rational person knows that the child of Omaha has an infinitely higher chance of living a full, comfortable, secure life than the child of Upper Volta or Uganda.
If this is true, “that all men are created equal,” why does a person born Nez Perce, born Hidatsa, born Cherokee, born Navaho, born Shoshone, born Crow, born Cheyenne, have an unmistakably harder time getting her basic needs met in life than someone born 100 miles away in an Anglo-American community?
And of course, the whopping Fourth of July irony is that this continent where Anglo-Americans thrive belonged to the Crow, Cheyenne and Shoshone for centuries, for millennia, until Columbus bumped into the Western Hemisphere and touched off a series of holocausts that are not over yet. I know people in Bismarck but I could be speaking about Denver, or Spokane, Wash.,, who are aware that the Native Americans who live near and among them have a higher infant mortality rate, a higher suicide rate, a higher likelihood of dying in violence, than that other human being, born a few dozen miles away, the “same” human being, as seen from Jupiter, living in the same bioregion — and to these irrefutable facts the white folks of Bismarck merely shrug.
If this is true, “that all humans are born equal,” why did we just learn — to the consternation of many — that young women who compete in what is self-styled as the most significant women’s scholarship program in the world — the Miss America Pageant — will no long have to strip to near nakedness and strut around in front of 25 million people to win that scholarship?
Imagine for a moment if men competing for the Rhodes or Marshall or Wilson or Fulbright scholarships had to parade in public in speedos or a G-string in order to win the opportunity to study at Oxford University.
For that matter, if this is true, why is it that a woman randomly born in Yemen or Iraq, who is raped by a mere stranger, may be killed by her father to preserve his honor?
Maybe Jefferson was just wrong. Lovely, high-minded words, an agreeable fiction, but one that has no basis in the facts on the ground.
As Jefferson wrote those glorious and revolutionary words in a boardinghouse in Philadelphia, 256 miles to the south, about eight days’ travel under the conditions of the time, gangs of his 200 black slaves were hoeing his tobacco fields back home, baking bricks for his neoclassical Palladian mansion and cleaning the privies for his white wife and white young children. While he trimmed his quill and let some of the greatest words in the English language glide through his pen onto paper, a black mother gave birth at Monticello to an infant who was born: into slavery. Not born equal, born permanently and legally defined as a species of property that the Enlightened Mr. Jefferson could buy or sell, whip or caress, shackle or slap, rent out or even kill with legal impunity. We all live with some contradictions, but that would seem to be an insurmountable one.
If Jefferson and other slaveholder revolutionaries really meant those words, said Mary Wollstonecraft and Thomas Paine and Joseph Priestley and Richard Price and Benjamin Rush, Jefferson would have had to find a way to free his slaves because if he couldn’t or wouldn’t free his slaves, he must not really have meant what he wrote in the famous preamble of the Declaration of Independence to have universal application. He must instead have been speaking about his own club, his own tribe, his own fraternity.
All humans are not born equal because it depends on where you were born and what color you were born into. That if you got to choose, and you wanted to thrive on Earth not suffer for everything you achieved, from a purely rational point of view, you would really want to be born white, male if possible, in western Europe at the very least, and in America if you can make that happen. That from the view of the U.N. Declaration of Rights or FDR’s Four Freedoms you would not want to be born black or brown, in a Second or Third World country, or on an Indian reservation. Think about the implications of that.
But we don’t get to choose where we are born and to whom. You are just randomly born, just as a daffodil is randomly born or an oak or an ant. The great human aspiration — never more clearly or beautifully articulated than by my hero Thomas Jefferson — is that you will not be punished or rewarded by the accident of your birth. You may not remain equal very long in life — someone is a better sprinter, someone a better student of calculus, someone better at selling stocks and bonds, someone luckier in love — but the great idea is that you are at least born with an equal chance at thriving or at least subsisting comfortably with a living wage on Earth.
Just what Jefferson meant by his magnificent words is not clear, but Abraham Lincoln wisely told us we have no choice but to read Jefferson’s ideals in the fullest, widest, deepest possible way. And I say, as the 21st century creates economic opportunity unprecedented in the history of the planet, is it too much to ask?
On this Fourth of July, please have a conversation about the Preamble of the Declaration of Independence with the people around you. And let us know what you hear.