Published on The Weekly Standard
“Within the context of the times it is clear that ‘all men’ was a euphemism for ‘humanity,’ and thus those people, such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Abraham Lincoln, and Martin Luther King, who used the Declaration of Independence to demand equality for African Americans and women seized the historical as well as the moral high ground.”
That isn’t some right-wing nut job’s attempt to whitewash America’s past. It’s an assessment from the Library of Congress’s website on “Creating the United States.” That would be news to plenty of liberals, including Meryl Streep. The Hollywood actress addressed the Democratic National Convention Tuesday and talked about Debra Sampson, “the first woman to take a bullet for our country.” Sampson, Streep explained, disguised herself as a man to serve in George Washington’s Continental Army. “And,” Streep continued, “she fought to defend a document that didn’t fully defend her. ‘All men are created equal,’ it read. No mention of women.”
The Declaration of Independence and the American Founding has become a theme this week in Philadelphia. This is intended to dramatize the historical significance of Secretary Hillary Clinton’s shattering of, as Eleanor Clift of the Daily Beast put it, “America’s 240-year-old glass ceiling.” “Our founding documents were genius,” declared Senator Cory Booker on Monday, quickly adding, “But not because they were perfect. They were saddled with the imperfections and even the bigotry of the past…. black Americans were referred to as fractions of human beings, and women were not mentioned at all.”
Sadly, the idea that the Founders deliberately sought to marginalize women has become predominant. It’s reiterated, programmatically and quite tritely, by celebrities and politicians in addition to teachers and professors. It’s also not true.
The late Robert A. Goldwin, political scientist and scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, repeatedly supplied incisive castigations of the Left’s interpretation of America’s founding documents. Perhaps his greatest performance arrived in the form of the essay, “Why Blacks, Women, and Jews Are Not Mentioned in the Constitution,” which appeared in the May 1987 issue of Commentary. It deserves to be read in its entirety. Goldwin makes the following compelling point about why “masculine pronouns must certainly be read as referring to women as well as men.”
Consider Article IV, section 2, clause 2, providing for the return of fugitives from justice. “A person” charged with a crime who flees from justice and is found in another state shall be delivered up on demand of the governor “of the State from which he fled….” If the “he” in this clause is assumed to mean men only, and not women, we get the absurd result that male fugitives from justice must be returned to face criminal charges, but not female fugitives.
Ironically, it’s easy to take the argument propagated by Streep and Booker in the opposite direction. Because women are not referenced in our founding documents, that could also logically mean they’re unconstrained by the temporal laws of humans and the transcendent laws of God. And wouldn’t that then mean they’re actually afforded a superior degree of liberty then males?
To be sure, one could rationally argue the Founders had greater esteem for women, because though “all men are created equal,” women are created unequal and, therefore, with superior capabilities. Of course, this isn’t what Thomas Jefferson and James Madison intended. But it’s revealing that leftists, when they arrive at this fork in the road, immediately go negative.
Let’s return to Booker. He also noted, “black Americans were referred to as fractions of human beings,” a reference to the Constitution’s “Three-Fifths Compromise.” That’s not wrong, per se. But there are more layers to the story. Goldwin also chopped down the canned progressive canard, implied by Booker, that all white Americans at the time happily conspired to disenfranchise people of color.
Northern delegates did not want black slaves included, not because they thought them unworthy of being counted, but because they wanted to weaken the slaveholding power in Congress. Southern delegates wanted every slave to count “equally with the Whites,” not because they wanted to proclaim that black slaves were human beings on an equal footing with free white persons, but because they wanted to increase the proslavery voting power in Congress. The humanity of blacks was not the subject of the three-fifths clause; voting power in Congress was the subject.
No distortion of American history is more pernicious than the notion that the term “all men are created equal” was intended to diminish the status of women. Instead of viewing the American experiment in democracy as a bold and unprecedented enterprise in liberty—which it was—it leads to the conclusion that our nation was born in “original sin,” that it’s creators were racists and chauvinists driven by narrow and self-serving interests.
If women weren’t originally afforded equality, then it was merely because the Constitution wasn’t applied effectively. In other words, a temporal culture—not the founding documents and their authors—are to blame. Liberals and progressives unfailingly laud the “elasticity” of the Constitution. But that elasticity derives precisely from the vagueness of the Constitution. America’s originators prophetically grasped that an absence of demarcation—that keeping terms universal—would furnish the space necessary for organic growth and societal advancement.
But why are left-wing partisans so set on perpetuating—or consciously turning a blind eye—to the realities of 18th-century affairs? The liberal conception of “progress” firmly rests upon the belief that civilization is inevitably learning from its mistakes and improving, that each generation is shrewder than the previous. As such, it’s anathema to suggest that there’s wisdom in bygone times, that there’s something to be emulated from prior experience. Since the cultural revolution of the 1960s, it’s become even more heretical to do this, to posit that the past might harbor guidance, because the past, after all, is comprised solely of bigoted “dead white males.”
Plus if “ground zero” of the American republic was corrupt, then nothing is sacred and, hence, everything is available for the molding to appease contemporary appetites. (And the doors for relativism, unfortunately, are flung open.)
If liberals and progressives are genuinely concerned with rescuing the American Dream, they need to investigate their own role in its demolition. For dictating to impressionable minds that the birth of American democracy was about exclusivity rather than inclusivity has provoked pessimism, extinguished a sense of agency, and bred intellectual carelessness.