Have you ever wondered why the slaveowning South was so untroubled by the the phrase “all men are created equal” in the Declaration of Independence? How does that make any sense? The phrase “all men are created equal” seems pregnant with so much mischief.
Here is an excerpt on the Declaration of Independence from Robert Middlekauff’s The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution, 1763-1789:
“What Americans thought and felt about the declaration’s “truths” which are presented as “self-evident” – that all men “are endowed by their creator with inalienable rights,” among them “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” – is not clear. There was no immediate discussion in public of these claims; nor was there of the contention that all men were “created equal.” Thomas Jefferson wrote those words and though at the time, and since, no great originality was attributed to them and to the substance of the declaration, the declaration may in fact have possessed more originality than anyone suspected.”
At the time, the phrase “all men are created equal” wasn’t considered remarkable in the colonies. The Founding Fathers bitterly disagreed on all sorts of issues. Why wasn’t this controversial? It had become extremely controversial by the time of the War Between the States.
Here’s an excerpt from John Richard Allen’s book The South In The Revolution, 1763-1789:
“In view of later and continuing debate over the meaning of Jefferson’s immoral propositions 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,” it may be asked: why was there not objection to them on the ground that, by implication at least, they denounced Negro slavery? It may be conceived that delegates did not necessarily observe the implication, that they did not think Negro slaves to be included in the word “men,” that they were not them inclined to quibble and quarrel seriously about definitions, that many of them, whether from New England or the South, if aware of the implication, would have considered it acceptable. Certainly, sentiment against both the slave trade and slavery itself was increasing, not only in Virginia but far to the southward.”
Oh … well that makes sense.
The implication that black slaves were entitled to equal rights wasn’t obvious to the Founding Fathers because negroes didn’t qualify as “men.” They weren’t interested in arguing over the word “men.” Slaves were at that time were more commonly thought of as property.
We’re not accustomed to looking at blacks and thinking of them as our property. Slavery has been dead for so long that it is difficult for us to see the world through that paradigm. The idea that slavery is immoral was one of the fashionable enlightened ideas of the late 18th century. When the Founding Fathers used the phrase “all men are created equal,” they were thinking in terms of monarchy vs. republicanism. It wasn’t a divisive issue because the Founders were all republicans.