Once after a particularly grueling and disappointing track and field meet, a young son sat silently during the ride home in the pick-up truck of his history teacher father. “What’s the matter?” the father inquired. “Jefferson lied, Dad,” the boy replied grimly. “All men are not created equal.”
Thomas Jefferson and the various shapers of the Declaration of Independence did not mean that humankind is born with equal gifts, talents, and abilities. As the young athlete discovered, that kind of utopian world does not exist in a shot-put pit – or anywhere else in life if the observer is willing to exercise his or her common sense while analyzing the question of equality.
Yet, today the meaning of equality has become something quite different than the one espoused in the Declaration. For example,
none other than President Barack Obama in his second inaugural address declared that equality, an idea that he considers “the most evident of truths,” means “preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action,” and that “progress does not compel us to settle centuries-old debates about the role of government for all time — but it does require us to act in our time.” Since then, the president has repeatedly made comments indicating he remains dedicated to those definitions. Both are interesting ideas worthy of debate, but they are hardly illuminating when it comes to understanding what equality in the United States evidently means. The scope of results based on President Obama’s vague formula could range from a society free of any social, political, or economic barriers to the politician’s idea of equality i.e. equal opportunity to bless your constituents with favors and federal programs.
We need a better standard. That standard can be found in the life and words of Abraham Lincoln, perhaps the greatest proponent of the Declaration of Independence. Lincoln has been called one our nation’s greatest citizens because of how his words unite us. President Obama twice swore his oath of office on Mr. Lincoln’s copy of the Bible; school children still learn the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural Address. He is the source of our most soaring rhetoric about the nation’s purpose and the political intentions of the Founders. Furthermore, Lincoln wrote and spoke frequently not only about the human rights contained in the Declaration but also the economic rights described in the document that became embodied in a nation that celebrates the individual, not the collective – what he called “the right to rise.” Today, we would call it the right to do everything legal and moral to earn a living, keep profits, and choose how our economic future could play out for the best.
One of the statements in the Declaration that Lincoln turned to repeatedly was the most familiar one: “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.” Obviously, he applied that belief to the question of slavery in America, saying that any denial that the phrase applied to blacks was a denial of the plain language that Jefferson wrote. However, Lincoln even went on to say that denying that truth and its application to black Americans was more than a lie – it was the extinguishing of the moral light that guided the nation. If all men are created equal, they cannot be property. You cannot set a house free or a horse free through a sales transaction. Only humans can be released from slavery, and the Declaration clearly applied to men. He strenuously maintained any other interpretation was either ignorant or dishonest.
However, Lincoln also deeply believed Jefferson’s essential statement made America a land where even the poorest citizen could have a better life because he or she could pursue happiness. Real freedom is found when the government of this nation allows its people to win what he called “the race of life” because they have the freedom to run the race (the pursuit of happiness) as they choose. In Lincoln and the Economics of the American Dream, historian Gabor S. Boritt examined Lincoln’s economic vision and determined that economic opportunity was one of the unifying themes of Lincoln’s public career from his first campaigns for the Illinois legislature to his presidency. Remember, Lincoln was a man who had escaped grinding poverty in his youth through self-improvement and opportunity, therefore government had a moral obligation to protect liberty so people (particularly the poor) possessed ample opportunity to rise as far as talent and ambition could take them. Even Lincoln’s moral opposition to slavery had an economic message, for slavery was not only wrong because it stole the God-given right of human freedom, but it made the slave-holder dependent on a government that enforced slavery rather than the noble institution of free labor, which is based on men who governed their own destiny. Using words that any self-made business owner would understand, Lincoln once said,“The prudent, penniless beginner in the world, labors for wages awhile, saves a surplus with which to buy tools or land for himself; then labors on his own account another while, and at length hires another new beginner to help him. This is the just, and generous, and prosperous system, which opens the way to all—gives hope to all, and consequent energy, and progress, and improvement of condition to all.” – a way that would only remain open only if government was dedicated to maintaining a clear path for opportunity through “the pursuit of happiness.”
In fact, Lincoln believed that economic improvement would be one of the chief blessings of freeing enslaved Americans, saying,
“So while we do not propose any war upon capital, we do wish to allow the humblest man an equal chance to get rich with everybody else. When one starts poor, as most do in the race of life, free society is such that he knows he can better his condition; he knows that there is no fixed condition of labor, for his whole life. I am not ashamed to confess that twenty five years ago I was a hired laborer, mauling rails, at work on a flat-boat—just what might happen to any poor man’s son! I want every man to have the chance — and I believe a black man is entitled to it — in which he can better his condition — when he may look forward and hope to be a hired laborer this year and the next, work for himself afterward, and finally to hire men to work for him! That is the true system.”
Like the Founding generation, Lincoln believed a government that stifled economic liberty was just as unjust as a government that denied political liberty. There was more to Abraham Lincoln than crass materialism, but the man clearly believed that Jefferson’s promise of equality, manifested in a free government, meant the opportunity to rise in life. “It is in order that each of you may have through this free government which we have enjoyed, an open field and a fair chance for your industry, enterprise and intelligence; that you may all have equal privileges in the race of life, with all its desirable human aspirations,” Lincoln told a group of Union soldiers in the 166th Ohio Regiment a little more than a month after the Battle of Gettysburg. Few American since the Revolution have understood the full dimension of the links between liberty, freedom, equality, and opportunity expressed in the Declaration of Independence as Abraham Lincoln. “The expression of that principle, in our Declaration of Independence, was most happy, and fortunate,” Lincoln wrote in 1861. “Without this, as well as with it, we could have declared our independence of Great Britain; but without it, we could not, I think, have secured our free government, and consequent prosperity. No oppressed people will fight, and endure, as our fathers did, without the promise of something better, than a mere change of masters.” No wonder Lincoln had the strength during this nation’s worst crisis to transform a bloody civil war into a quest for a new birth of freedom that would provide an enslaved people political and economic opportunity on par with free whites.
James Parton, the nation’s first professional biographer, described the significance of Jefferson’s words in the Declaration succinctly: “If Jefferson was wrong, America is wrong. If Jefferson is right, America is right.” More than 230 years have passed since Jefferson wrote the statement that defined the meaning of the United States. Since then, there has been much debate whether the ideas that formed this nation are as important as claimed by others in our nation’s past. (Even Lincoln once raised the question of the whether the United States could have come into being without the Declaration.) That is in realm of counterfactual speculation, but it is certain the United States would not have been the same without it. The Declaration became a source of liberty and freedom for those who run the race of life as individuals, not as a herd. It remains the best source for those priceless national qualities. Millions of this nation’s past citizens clinged to its promises; millions continue to use it as the measure of whether the United States lives up to its promises. Historians have not always embraced that self-evident truth, a decision fraught with more than academic consequences. As the historian David Hackett Fischer points out, scholars who deny the expansion of liberty and freedom in the United States are dooming themselves to irrelevance. Liberty and freedom are the central ideas in United States, and without those ideas we doom ourselves and our nation to irrelevance. We must never forget that the nation was founded on deeply held conviction regarding the equal chance to run the race of life and do our best to rise as far as talent and hard work will take us. For all their flaws, contradictions, high-minded ideals and coarse failures, Jefferson, the other Founders, and Lincoln were right. America was right, and our ideas not only matter, but they give our nation life. We measure ourselves by a standard set by a man who transcended his flaws because someday reason would prevail and the United States would recognize all the rich and full implications of the phrase, “All men are created equal.” Like Lincoln, we should never have a feeling that does not spring politically and economically from the Declaration of Independence.