Saturday, July 04, 2015

The words that changed the world

(Warning: This post does not contain economics, and does contain nationalism.)

The 4th of July isn't the anniversary of the Constitution, it's the anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. The Constitution set up our government, and Americans tend to revere it as the immortal symbol and spirit of our country, much as Japanese people traditionally saw the Emperor. But in many ways, the Declaration of Independence is the more important document. By declaring when it's OK for a populace to abolish their government and form a new one, the Declaration necessarily appeals to powers that are higher than any Constitution, king, or emperor. The powers it appeals to are 1) People power, 2) God, and 3) moral ideals.

The ideals of the Declaration are many, but the basic ones are laid out in the second sentence:
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.
This is the sentence everyone can quote, and with good reason. This sentence is the core idea of the United States as a nation-state.

When you think about it, it's pretty incredible that people - especially people in the 18th century - would put a moral statement as their reason for founding a new nation. This sentence makes it clear that the United States was created as fundamentally not just a group of people and the plot of land they live on. It was a nation created to advance a set of moral ideals.

Of the ideals in that sentence, the most dramatic, the most memorable, and the most astonishingly radical is "all men are created equal". I feel like if the idea of the United States of America were stripped down to its very essence, these are the five words that would remain.

What the heck does "all men are created equal" even mean? Does it mean that they're equal in some measurable characteristic, like height? Obviously not. In fact, "equal" obviously doesn't mean - can't mean - anything that can be proven or disproven with facts. The founders could not possibly be using the words "self-evident truth" to mean "measurable fact", so they must be using them to mean something else. "All men are created equal" must be a prescriptive statement - a statement of opinion, a codified expression of emotion.

It's a statement about how society ought to treat people. It says, basically, that society shouldn't treat people differently based on the conditions of their birth. There's really nothing else it could mean.

"All men are created equal"! What an astounding thing to say! What an astounding thing for a bunch of slaveholders to say! And what an astounding thing to base a country on! Centuries later people from other countries still boggled and balked at it. It's a statement that turns almost everything about traditional human society on its head.

Now, lots of people make sweeping moral statements that they or their descendants completely ignore. But this one has proven to be astonishingly powerful down through the centuries. Again and again "all men are created equal" is something Americans have proven willing to fight for. We fought the Civil War to enforce the ideal of "all men are created equal" (no, slavery was not the only reason the Union fought, but it was really what the conflict was all about). George Washington knew from Day 1 that this was going to happen. In 1797 he told a guest that "I can clearly foresee that nothing but the rooting out of slavery can perpetuate the existence of our union, by consolidating it in a common bond of principal (sic)."

The rest of American history involves a long list of episodes in which people fought for the principle of "all men are created equal". It wasn't too long before it became obvious that "men" meant women as well - the women's rights and feminist movements clearly spring from the idea that "all [people] are created equal". Civil rights was another battle, and just recently, the triumph of gay marriage was another. The fight against police racism is an ongoing example. The U.S. is not always the first to implement policies that confer greater equality (though we're usually one of the first), but I can't think of another country where the cause of equality arouses as much popular feeling.

The American ideal of "freedom" has traditionally been conflated with this ideal of "equality" - in fact, some early drafts of the Declaration said "all men are born equally free." The idea is that a society that treats people differently due to their circumstances of birth is not a free society. Later, Communism adopted the language of "equality", using the term to mean something very different (and leading to interminable high-school debates over "equality of opportunity vs. equality of outcome"). But the notion of "equality" as "freedom from social discrimination based on the circumstances of birth" lives on, and now that Communism is effectively dead, the word "equality" is starting to make a comeback - e.g. in the marriage equality movement.

In fact, I don't think it's a stretch to say that every distinctly American ideal springs from "all men are created equal". Democracy, the rule of law, human rights and civil liberties - these all follow from that one animating idea. If "all men are created equal", they all deserve to have a voice in government, they all deserve equal treatment under the law, and they all deserve the same rights and protections. Even capitalism itself relies partly on the notion that everyone should have an equal chance to participate in the economy - that there should be no hereditary rentier class pulling the levers.

The American idea of "all men are created equal" is a radical ideology of incredible power, and it has influenced other nations tremendously. It inspired the French Revolution. It inspired the thinking of the Meiji Restoration reformers. It reshaped much of Europe and Asia after the World Wars, inspiring people there to remake their societies in America's image.

This is why I'm a nationalist at heart. I'm not a jingoist who thinks America always does the right thing. I'm not a blood-and-soil nationalist who thinks of America as a race plus a plot of land. I believe in those five words - "all men are created equal". It's an ambiguous statement, an emotional statement, a religious statement. It's also one of the most powerful and transformative and positive ideas the world has ever known.

That's why we should celebrate July 4th. When our founders wrote those five words, everything changed. Once you say "all men are created equal," once you throw down that gauntlet, you can never take it back. As long as America exists - and even if it dies - "all men are created equal" is here to stay, animating the hearts and minds of billions. In terms of human history, there was Before July 4th, 1776, and there was After July 4th, 1776. I'm damn glad I live in the After.


  1. I'm not an American but I can't help but cheer for this piece :-)

  2. Beautiful sentiments, nicely expressed.

    But are you talking about nationalism or patriotism? The question is not trivial.

    And I really can't share your apparent excitement about the beautiful but unrealistic ideal of all men being created equal. That concept has never been honored in this country. What we see now, among many other injustices, is the voting rights of minorities being severely impeded, a lobbying push by for-profit prisons to keep their cells full, leading to long sentences for trivial offenses, and the way struggling communities grift off of their struggling minority citizens.

    A couple of good things happened last week, but I still see us inching ever closer to an oligarchic police state.

    There is no equality in that situation.


  3. Very nicely done.

    However as an admirer of George and a copy editor in some past life, I must protest your absurd accusation that he somehow misspelled the word "principle" while speaking it.

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. I'm coming back to this after a couple days,and I have to say, my praise was understated. This is the best thing you've ever written. Even despite the most unjust insult to Mr Washington, who I assure you always spoke the word "principle" in such a way that no one could claim he had misspelled it. It really does make the tears well. And indeed the proper word for you and what this essay is all about is liberal.

      I found myself wondering if someone could write just as beautiful an essay on how powerfully that latter part of the same sentence, about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, reshaped the world. And I think yes. Though it draws so much of its power from the first half. And so does the first from the latter. Oh never mind, it's just the most awesome sentence ever written.

  4. Anonymous5:53 AM

    This almost brought a tear to my eye. So much empirical evidence seems to contradict the notion that sometimes I lose faith; but dammit, that's the way it SHOULD be.

    Also, you're not a nationalist. The statement isn't "all my countrymen are created equal." It's all men period. The way you put it America is more of an idea than a nation. We have a word for people like you. It's liberal.

  5. > We fought the Civil War to enforce the ideal of "all men are created equal" (no, slavery was not the only reason the Union fought, but it was really what the conflict was all about).

    That's misleading at best. Although conflict over slavery was the primary empirical cause of the war, we know that the Union absolutely did not fight to enforce any such ideal. The reason we know this is that, when push came to shove, the northern states offered to enshrine slavery *forever* with an *unamendable* constitutional amendment in order to preserve the union.

    > The Corwin Amendment is a proposed amendment to the United States Constitution passed by the 36th Congress on March 2, 1861 and submitted to the state legislatures for ratification...It was one of several measures considered by Congress in an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to attract the seceding states back into the Union and to entice border slave states to stay. ... it would, if ratified, shield "domestic institutions" of the states (which in 1861 included slavery) from the constitutional amendment process and from abolition or interference by Congress

    It was able to gather a supermajority in congress when many of the Southern states had already left. So the North unambiguously were willing to throw slaves under the bus. This includes Abraham Lincoln. Here is him in his first inaugural address:

    >>I understand a proposed amendment to the Constitution—which amendment, however, I have not seen—has passed Congress, to the effect that the Federal Government shall never interfere with the domestic institutions of the States, including that of persons held to service....holding such a provision to now be implied constitutional law, I have no objection to its being made express and irrevocable.

    Southern apologists like to say that the South fought for state's rights, not slavery. Most modern Americans like to say that the North fought primarily to end slavery. Neither of these are true.

    1. You have to keep the distinction between why a people start fighting a war (in this case, the North wanted to preserve the Union) and why they KEEP fighting it through to the end. In the Civil War, long before the actual end, the abolition of slavery took on a prominent and eventually dominant role.

    2. No, the North pushed for the abolition of slavery during the war because it was a military strategic advantage. (This is pretty widely accepted, and exemplified by the context and text of the emancipation proclamation.) They pushed for it after the war because they had already won, so they were moving down their priority list. It's not realistic to think that the most idealistic/altruistic goal became *more* important during the war, when the entire history of warfare shows that such goals often fade away under extreme pragmatism.

  6. I used to think of the U.S. as a more equal place, but living in St. Louis (a very racially and economically segregated city) has made me question this idea.
    But you're right, America is great. Rock on!

  7. Anonymous6:14 PM

    Very nice post. Your emphasis on the phrase "All men are created equal" reminds me of a corollary, the inscription on the Supreme Court building, "Equal Justice Under Law." That inscription is becoming less and less valid for the Robert's court. After decisions such as Citizens United, a more appropriate motto for the court would be "Special Rights for Rich Whites (and Corporations."

  8. Eloquently stated, Noah. No complaints from me. Well done.

    Barkley Rosser

  9. FM20302:50 AM

    I'm not going to read through all that but did read the beginning and the end. I'm sorry you are a nationalist. Reread what Einstein said.

  10. As said above, this is the best thing you've written.
    Even after 24 years away "all individuals are created equal" ... remains the Ideal I continue to embrace. With God above any gov't of men, and from God, not men, endowing humans with rights.

    Funny sad, however, that atheists want Gov't to replace God as the endower of rights. And thus allow gov't of men to decide who has what rights or not.

  11. IMHO, the French said it better: "Tous les hommes naissent et demeurent libres et égaux en droits" i.e. All men are born and remain free and equal in rights. It solves that stupid childish counter "but all men are not born equal/-ly talented"... Arguably, the French had 20 more years to polish their copy... :)

    Like Americans with their Life, Liberty and Pursuit of Happiness, every French kid can quote that line. With "Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité", it defines who we are and what we stand for as a nation. Even when we fail to live up to these ideals.

    The second part of the article is also interesting: "Les distinctions sociales ne peuvent être fondées que sur l’utilité commune" i.e. social distinctions can only be grounded in the common good.

    This should be the guiding principle of our socio-economic organisation. It condemns the cronyism, corruption, collusion and rent extraction that characterise so much of early 21st century capitalism.