The Declaration of Independence declared “all men are created equal.” Critics of the founders have pointed out that the Declaration did no good for Indians and slaves and women. “How is it,” asked Samuel Johnson in 1775, “that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of Negroes?”
But Americans seeking equality have often turned to the promise of the Declaration. The Seneca Falls women’s rights convention of 1848 declared it “self-evident” that “all men and women are created equal.” In an 1852 speech, Frederick Douglass asked: “What, to the American slave, is your Fourth of July?” And in his 1863 Gettysburg Address, Abraham Lincoln looked back four score and seven years ago to 1776, the year “our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”
Throughout our history and still today, Americans have debated the proper balance between freedom and equality, and the answers have by no means always been “self-evident.” Can the words of the Declaration still inspire—and guide—us?
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