Van Ens: Are some people better than others?
What shared traits make us equal?
In 1776, leaders in the British Parliament were baffled about what qualities made humans equal. They heckled Thomas Jefferson for declaring in the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are equal.” Not all residents of the U.S. possessed equality. Jefferson focused on the equality white male property owners shared.
British leaders scratched their heads, wondering how anyone could believe in this ridiculous assertion of human equality. They mocked Jefferson because it is self-evident that “all men” are not the same height. Do they possess the same smarts? How about where they live? Are their residences of equal value? Do Americans possess the same amount of money?
After the Revolutionary War, Jefferson insulted a visiting British ambassador and his wife with seating arrangements at a state dinner. The British assumed their esteemed place would be at the head table. Jefferson exchanged rectangular tables for circular ones, which lacked chairs for guests of honor. The president treated all guests equally by seating them at circular tables.
Jefferson called this new code of etiquette “pele-mele,” which meant each guest was treated the same in seating. The British ambassador felt snubbed when the president’s equal seating arrangements “eliminated protocol based on title, class or rank,” observed historian Alexandra Hudson. “In an 1803 memo to his cabinet, President Jefferson outlined new procedures that would require his guests to check their social ranks at the door.”
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If status does not determine the equality we share, what traits do? Jefferson believed “Nature’s God,” as he expressed it in the Declaration of Independence, confers on each of us the gift of being precious. This precious trait is evident when each person has an equal opportunity to work, play, study and rise on the economic ladder. No one should have the right to tip the scales of justice because such a tactic destroys equality for all.
Hudson fleshes out Jeffersonian equality. “The self-evident truths in America’s founding documents refer to equal treatment under the law,” she wrote. “They don’t mean that all people are equal in their abilities, interests, or life outcomes. But the American credo recognizes each human life is of equal value, and that everyone is owed, and owes to others, a level of respect by virtue of being part of the human community.”
On March 21, 1861, Alexander Stephens, Georgia’s newly elected vice president of the Confederacy, denounced Jeffersonian equality. Speaking to a crowd, this articulate Southern Christian declared, “In contrast to the United States government, the Confederate government rested on the ‘great truth’ that ‘the Negro is not equal to the white man; that … subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition.’”
Stephens endorsed what conservatives refer to as “states’ rights,” that locals make the most informed decisions. Moreover, the Constitution supports slavery, argued Stephens. The Bible condones its practice, too. Stephens showed his command of scripture, reciting a proverb: “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver” (Proverbs 25: 11). Using this metaphor, Stephens pointed to the Constitution as the scriptural “setting of silver.” If God, the Bible, and the Constitution do not condemn slavery, what right-thinking patriot of the Confederacy can be against it?
Echoes of Stephens’ contention that some people are better than others reverberate in contemporary U.S. politics.
When Sarah Palin basked in the national spotlight by running for vice president in 2008, she adored “those wonderful pockets of what I call real Americans.” Donald Trump borrowed such language to arouse his base. “Real Americans” are a cut above Democrats. Palin and Trump adored them because they are white. They are Christians. And they spurned Ivy League book learning for grassroots states rights’ know-how, with locals making their own decisions.
On May 17, 1954, when Chief Justice Earl Warren announced the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v Board of Education to desegregate public schools, an Alabama newspaper named the Troy Messenger received “a word from the Lord.” Its editors knew best what the locals should do: exert their states rights’ by having their white children come to Jesus in private Christian schools that Uncle Sam could not legislate. “What is there to prevent separate schools from being operated with attendance at either being optional, either by white or Negro,” the Troy Messenger opined, “as long as the student has the legal freedom of choice?”
In 1977, in a radio address during Jimmy Carter’s presidency, Ronald Reagan supported the primacy of local governance over federal control. He feared that the popular election of presidents coordinated by Washington’s liberal elites would reduce the congressional power exerted by real, mostly rural Americans. “The very basis of our freedom is that we [the U.S.] are a federation of sovereign states. Our Constitution recognizes that certain rights belong to the states and cannot be infringed upon by the national government,” asserted Reagan. Didn’t he echo the Confederacy’s Alexander Stephens?
Today, conservative governors of Florida and Texas reject the federal government’s requirement for school children to wear face coverings. Why? Because the locals know better than Uncle Sam’s medical scientists what is right for these children. These governors, however, compromise the adage that “locals make their own best decisions” by mandating “no required mask wearing for students” instead of leaving this decision to local school districts.
Abraham Lincoln poses the sternest challenge to “real Americans” who act as if some people [themselves] are better than others. Lincoln admitted Alexander Stephens had the better of the constitutional argument for slavery. The Constitution had abolished “liberty for all” by permitting slavery in states where it was previously established. The fugitive slave clause allowed masters to round up slaves who had escaped Dixie. Moreover, the founders’ three-fifths compromise allowed the South to count slaves as a three-fifths percentage to enlarge their congressional representation without giving citizenship to those in bondage.
Lincoln believed the Declaration of Independence took precedent over the Constitution. He turned on its head Stephens’ “apple of gold” proverb. “Liberty for all” was like “apples of gold,” declared Lincoln who pictured Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence human equality’s “setting of silver.”
Our republic is a union that bestows liberty on all citizens. It is not a confederacy of states in which “real Americans” govern by local control and denies people of color their sacred rights.
The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax-exempt Creative Growth Ministries (TheLivingHistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive.