Watching TV this weekend, the contrasts could not have been more shocking to the human conscience. Hoodlum anarchist Gen-Z’ers and Millennials looting and rioting across America in supposed “protest” to the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis on one hand.
And the spectacular human achievement represented by the folks at NASA and SpaceX (many of them Millennials themselves) on the other. For some of us, this contrast tore at our souls so profoundly that it made us question the fundamental proposition which has bound our country together for the past 150 years… “that all men (post 14th Amendment to include women) are created equal.”
In many ways, it was the loquaciousness of Jefferson that has brought us to this junction. Does anyone really think that Jefferson meant to imply that the lives of his “chattel property” were “equal” to his own and the other 53 signers of that revered document (46 of which were slaveholders) for that matter? Of course not. Like the rest of the Declaration of Independence, the issue that Jefferson was addressing was just another bullet point in the tirade of enumerated “sins” which had been committed by George III. Jefferson was riling against the “hereditary monarchy” of the British crown (meaning to send the message King George was no more special than any other man and did not deserve in any way to “rule” America because he was heir to the throne). What Jefferson meant to say was “that all men are created in the same way” but he couldn’t resist the impulsive rhetorical flourish of the words that he left to history.
And, for the next “four score and seven years,” everyone in “these United States” had that exact understanding of Jefferson’s words.
It was not until the second year of the Civil War when things were going badly for the Union and Lincoln was searching desperately for guidance in our founding documents that Jefferson’s words were misappropriated. Our 16th President did not find any inspiration in the Constitution. But he did find these six words in our Declaration. And these six words became the inspiration for both the Emancipation Proclamation and the “new birth of freedom” referenced in the Gettysburg Address.
After Lincoln’s assassination, the Abolitionists used these words as the basis for the enactment of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments and the preservation of the “Legacy of Lincoln.” And in so doing, cemented the primacy of the Federal Government, with the concept of “these United States” morphing into “The United States.”
The textbooks were changed to reflect the new “aspirational” understanding of these words, and the world took notice of the new “American creed.” And these words were used to bind us together as a Nation for the next century and a half.
But we all know that we are heterogeneous beings, not homogeneous ones. We come from different parents, with differing chromosomal inheritances even among offspring of the same parental pairs. We come in different sizes and shapes, possess various levels of drive and ambition, courage and fear, health, and illness. And populate bell curve distributions of both physical strength and cognitive ability.
I suspect that neither the looters nor the rocket scientists understand the history and context of these six words. But, by their actions and their deeds, the mindless angry and the gifted geeks both demonstrate that they surely do understand that some of their futures will be a lot “less equal” than others. Jefferson’s words have come back to haunt us. And they are tearing our country apart.