© Paul K. Davis 2010. All Rights Reserved.
Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation
July 4, 2010

"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." so says our nation's Declaration of Independence. But who is equal? And what does "equal" mean, anyway? And what about our big, but hopefully narrowing, gap between ideals and reality?

Those words were drafted by Thomas Jefferson, worked over by a committee, and then voted on by the representatives of thirteen rebellious colonies. Majorities of the delegates from each and every one of those thirteen colonies voted "yes". This despite the fact that representatives of five of those colonies, including Thomas Jefferson himself, were slave owners, and the other colonies in general had various qualifications for voting, such as property ownership.

The concepts expressed here have had a long and tortured history, before as well as after 1776. The list of unalienable rights is modified from the list of the English philosopher John Locke, who specified Life, Liberty and the Possession of Property. Four years after the Declaration of Independence John Adams, in drafting the constitution of the state of Massachusetts, would list all four: Life, Liberty, Property and Pursuit of Happiness, with some further detail and clarification.

The concept of everyone being created equal had been expressed by the British philosopher Thomas Hobbes, who proposed it as an alternative to the divine right of monarchs. Hobbes argued for both physical and mental equality, explaining that exercise and education could alter the equality with which we were created, thus explaining the apparent differences we observe.

Regardless of whether people are created equal, many have said over the millennia that we should treat people equally. This is implied by the way Jesus expressed the Golden Rule, using how we wish to be treated as the single standard for how we treat someone else. Further, he made it explicit, to his shocked disciples, that he treated Samaritans and women the same way he treated Jewish men. Even earlier, in the ten commandments, set down perhaps by Moses, the law of the Sabbath is explicitly applied to servants as well as family, and women as well as men, and we are enjoined to honor both our mothers and our fathers.

Reality, of course, was not in step with these ideals, and before the year 1776 had concluded, the abolitionist Thomas Day wrote: "If there be an object truly ridiculous in nature, it is an American patriot, signing resolutions of independency with the one hand, and with the other brandishing a whip over his affrighted slaves."

One limitation of the Declaration's wording was improved in 1787, when the preamble to the Constitution began "We, the people", rather than "We, the men", as might have been expected, but this had no concrete effect. In 1848 it was necessary for Elizabeth Cady Stanton and her associates to re-write the Declaration, explicitly proclaiming: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men and women are created equal." And it was still not till 1920 that the Constitution guaranteed women the right to vote.

Once we get past the preamble to the Constitution, the reality can be seen in Article 1, Section 2, which says, "Representatives ... shall be apportioned among the several States ... according to their respective numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole number of free persons, including those bound to service for a term of years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three-fifths of all other persons." And, it must be pointed out, this did not mean a slave was worth three-fifths of a free person, rather it meant that the owner of a slave was worth one and three-fifths times a non-slave-owner.

But my purpose today is not to detail a litany of hypocrisy. Rather I believe Jefferson, Adams, and their associates deserve praise for having ideals well above their reality. Ideals are not a factual account of where we are, but a beacon for us to discern the path forward. Their beacon has indeed led us forward, though not without the traumas of a Civil War, repeated civil unrest, and lingering oppression. I wish to use this beacon now to attempt some illumination of my three questions, "who is equal, what does 'equal' mean, and how can we continue to narrow the gap between ideals and reality?"

Taking up the first of these, Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary, and other dictionaries I have consulted, give "human being" as the first meaning of the word "man". Human beings are a species, called "Homo sapiens" in biology, and we must include all members of that species as being intrinsically equal, regardless of race, gender, nationality, or any other natural or artificial distinction.

It has been said many times that if even one is not free, then nobody is genuinely free. An excellent example demonstrating this involves George Wythe, a friend and mentor of Thomas Jefferson, and also a signer of the Declaration of Independence. He eventually became an abolitionist, unlike Jefferson. Like Jefferson, he apparently loved a slave woman, and gave her and her son freedom, and included them in his will. His other heir, a nephew, was not happy dividing the inheritance, and poisoned him. At the trial the only witnesses were Blacks, and the Virginia constitution excluded their testimony. In fact, George Wythe had been the author of this provision. The nephew was acquitted. This limitation on the freedom of Blacks, that they could not testify against a White, thus became a limitation on George Wythe's own rights, in fact on his highest right - his right to life.

There is now, I believe, a different attack on the equality of people, by the inclusion of non-human entities in our rights. As I understand a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision, corporations were given the right of free speech, and exempted from legal limitations on their spending on political campaigns. I believe this is contrary to the tenth amendment to the constitution, which recognizes only the U.S. government, the states, and people as holders of fundamental power. Further, since the essence of a corporation, as compared to a partnership, is limitation of liability, there must be a corresponding limitation of corporate freedom. Freedom without responsibility amounts to the right to overpower the right's of others.

The question about the meaning of equality is more difficult. It must be something distinct from identity, for we are all clearly different. Today's Story for All Ages, "Black, White, Just Right", by Marguerite W. Davol, illustrated this well, depicting two parents, different from each other in many ways, but equal in being loving parents and examples to their child.

The intent of Jefferson's words is apparently that we are equal in our "unalienable rights". These rights are specified only by broad category, and I'm not sure we will ever be able to state them totally exactly. I do think it's important to keep them in order - life first, then liberty, and last the pursuit of happiness including property rights. It was placement of property rights before the right of liberty that gave intellectual cover to slavery.

As a recent "Wee Pals" comic strip has also pointed out, we are not guaranteed happiness, only the pursuit of happiness. We have to catch it ourselves. So the key right here is a right of opportunity. It is easy to overlook this kind of right, yet we see these days the economic problems that result for all, when ten percent of more of our workforce are blocked from employment. I believe we all have equal intrinsic rights to gainful and appropriate employment.

Court rights are also key. We like to laugh at lawyers, but without the right to go to court and be heard, we have no rights. The story of George Wythe is just one of many examples. Before 1879 American Indians had no court rights, with the result that treaties were all one-sided: the Indians being obligated to adhere to the treaty, but not the U.S. government nor states nor U.S. citizens.

And we must constantly ask ourselves the last question, what gap do we have between our ideals and reality, and how will we close the gap.

We have made considerable progress, but the progress has not been consistent. We make big gains every so often, followed by periods of slow sinking backwards. New dangers arise. We fought a devastating Civil War to end slavery. We made considerable gains toward political and economic processes that gave equal rights to Black and White. Then toward the end of the nineteenth century we began to slip backwards, as Blacks who held political office, or advanced in business, were lynched, without serious efforts to catch culprits. In the mid years of the twentieth century we began a new effort on this front, and the nation has now elected a non-White president, but not one descended from our former slaves.

In 1819, Sequoyah, a mixed-race individual raised in the Cherokee culture, devised a writing system for the Cherokee language. Sequoyah accomplished this from knowing about writing and looking at written documents, but without being able to understand anything except the abstract possibility of a writing system. I consider him one of the most notable intellectuals and promoters of intellectual progress of all time. The response of the Cherokee people was phenomenal, with most of them being able to read and write by 1824. Yet in 1830 the "Indian Removal Act" was passed by Congress and signed by president Andrew Jackson. Under this law various tribes, including the "Five Civilized Tribes" (such as the Cherokee), were compelled to sign removal treaties, and embark on a "trail of tears" for lands west of the Mississippi river. Only a few just souls, including missionary Jeremiah Evarts and congressman David "Davy" Crockett, had spoken against the bill.

In 1879 a U.S. judge, Elmer S. Dundy, finally ruled that "an Indian is a person", and freed chief Standing Bear and other Ponca Indians from arbitrary detention. Since then we have seen steady, though not always consistent, advance in treatment of American Indians.

Another area in which we have made progress but also taken steps backwards is the rights of same-sex couples. A courageous California Supreme Court took our state constitution to mean exactly what it said, but then a majority of the electorate changed that constitution. I have little hope that the current U.S. Supreme Court will believe the constitution means what it says, but I have much hope that the electorate will shift. We can possibly help the process by reminding others of previous historical problems with marriage laws, including Protestants and Catholics not accepting each other's marriages, and consequent disputes over who was the legitimate monarch of England, for example.

We need also to explain to people that, once you promote a bad idea, you can't control who will be hurt by it. George Wythe is an illustration of this. Another is the use by the English in India of the Aryan racial theory. Drawing on the dubious theory that all White Europeans are descended from the ancient group called Aryans, who inhabited Iran and invaded or migrated into northern India, and the over-simplification that the Brahman caste was derived from the Aryans, some of the English claimed that it was natural they should rule India. If so, it was apparently also natural that Germany drop millions of tons of bombs on London. If you play with fire, you may well get burnt.

A major continuing concern is economics. Initially in the U.S., in many practical matters, it was not people but acres of land that were equal. The placement of property rights before human rights is a continuing problem. For example, a major U.S. Senate candidate recently said that a business owner has the right to reject customers on the basis of race. This has, of course, been condemned as a racist remark, but I believe it is worse. Any person or group could be starved, whether racially based or other, if owning a business is taken as a more fundamental right than life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It is frightening that many would want to refuse service on the basis of race. It is even more frightening to me that many take this line of reasoning seriously.

In our present era it is often dollars, rather than people, that are in reality equal. Money is certainly important. It is highly efficient as the medium of exchange for the essential material aspect of our existence. But we are in serious danger when it dominates our political system. When a rich candidate buys an incredible amount of broadcast commercial time they are not just exercising their right of free speech, they are also driving up the cost of advertising, reducing the amount of coverage other candidates can purchase. I don't know the solution to this problem, just that it's a serious problem.

These and other problems show that we are still a long way from living up to the high ideals that attended the birth of this nation. We must recognize that we have a gap which must still be bridged. We must also recognize that other nations are also moving along the path to equal rights, sometimes in a similar fashion, sometimes along a different route. While it is disappointing that there has been so much stumbling along the way, I would like again to honor those who have shone a beacon far beyond their personal limitations.

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