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The Changing Nature of Equality

By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, June 27, 2002 – If the men who signed the Declaration of Independence could see America today, they'd probably be astonished.

When they wrote "All men are created equal," they weren't being literal or inclusive. In the thinking of the day, all men were equal, but only if they were white, over 21 and owned a certain amount of property.

Black men weren't equal: The vast majority of African Americans in the Colonies were property. Slavery would survive as a legal institution for nearly a century after the Declaration. Even free blacks in the United States weren't equal, because laws forbade them to vote.

No woman of any color was equal because the new United States took most of its laws from Great Britain. Women there couldn't own property, couldn't vote, and couldn't do many other things without the express permission of a husband, father or other male guardian.

But times change, and so did the nature of who is equal in America.

In 1787, the U.S. Constitution enshrined slavery as part of the founding fabric of the republic. In the Constitution, slaves counted only for population purposes, and then as only 60 percent of a white man.

Yet even as the Constitution was drawn up and adopted by the United States, people pressed for change -- the abolition of slavery. It took a bloody Civil War, but finally, in 1865, the 13th Amendment abolished slavery in the United States. The amendment declared anyone born in the United States to be a citizen protected by the laws of the nation.

In 1869, Congress passed the 15th Amendment that stated, "The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude." Black men could vote, but no woman could.

From the beginning of the country, women in America were more self-reliant than in Europe. After all, it took more to survive on the American frontier than in England or France or Germany. American women started organizing in the 1830s and 1840s for rights -- especially voting rights. Western states led the way in giving women the right to vote.

Before World War I, "Suffragettes" marched to push for the right of women to vote. It wasn't until 1919 that Congress passed the 19th Amendment allowing women the vote.

More than the Constitution needed changing. Many Americans harbored virulent racial and ethnic prejudices.

Following the Civil War, the Central Pacific railroad company recruited thousands of Chinese to help build the nation's first transcontinental railroad. Once that work finished, thousands of other Chinese and Japanese immigrated to the United States.

The U.S. government responded with a number of exclusion laws that progressively limited Asian immigration. The laws declared noncitizen Asians couldn't own property -- and prohibited immigrant Asians from ever becoming citizens no matter how long they lived in America.

Further, the constitutional amendments opened the door of equality for African Americans, but few blacks were allowed to walk through in actual practice.

World War II supplied the impetus for Americans of all colors and both sexes to claim equality. Women, who worked the factories and farms during the war, wanted equal opportunity following the conflict. People of color, who served honorably in all theaters of the war, also demanded their rights.

The civil rights struggles of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s resulted in laws with real teeth that enforced the rights of all Americans. What's more, the vast majority of Americans agreed these rights needed to be honored and protected.

Americans with disabilities demanded access. Asian Americans finally got the exclusion laws rescinded. Laws, such as Title IX, worked to give women more opportunities. Agencies such as the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Justice Department worked to ensure equality before the law.

"All men are created equal" has come to mean "All Americans are created equal." This does not mean that all is perfect in the Union. Problems of prejudice and harassment crop up the length and breadth of the nation. But Americans are trying to realize the ideal. They are trying to be better people and to respect the contributions that all Americans can make to the democracy.

Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and Benjamin Franklin may not have had the Union of today in mind when they wrote the words to the Declaration of Independence, but as men of the Enlightenment, they surely would have approved of the expansion of the idea of equality.

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