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On this July 4th, what does equality mean?

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Today, we are updating an NPR Independence Day tradition, the reading of the Declaration of Independence.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

BOB EDWARDS: (Reading) When in the course of human events...

INSKEEP: Since 1988, NPR staff members have read aloud the document that proclaimed the start of the United States.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

COKIE ROBERTS: (Reading) We therefore, the representatives of the United States of America...

INSKEEP: The voices have ranged from the late Cokie Roberts to one of our newest program hosts, Ayesha Rascoe, who read one of the many complaints against Britain's King George.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

AYESHA RASCOE, BYLINE: (Reading) He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution and unacknowledged by our laws.

INSKEEP: But that founding document has never been the whole story. So on this July Fourth, we hear some of the ways Americans have used the declaration since 1776. One sentence above all remains relevant.

RACHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: (Reading) 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.

INSKEEP: Thomas Jefferson and other founders wrote those words, and the country has spent 246 years debating what they mean, especially the line that all men are created equal, words the founders were not exactly living by. Historian Annette Gordon-Reed wrote a book about the children Jefferson fathered with Sally Hemings, one of the people enslaved on his Virginia farm.

What made Jefferson want there to be equality in the document at all?

ANNETTE GORDON-REED: It is the document that is announcing to the world that this country is going to take its place among the powers of the Earth, and they want to do so on the basis of equality.

INSKEEP: The founders asserted they were equals among nations and had a right to make their own decisions. Historian Jill Lepore says Jefferson was also repeating an idea from Enlightenment philosophers. Everyone was entitled to equal dignity.

JILL LEPORE: So I think, you know, it's fashionable - and I think rightly so - to indict the limits of that vision. But it is actually a radical vision in the 18th century. The notion even that all white men are equal is a radical idea. You know, I teach at Harvard College. And before the revolution, you entered a classroom, or you entered commons to have your meal in the order of the social rank and wealth of your father. Those men all lived in a highly ranked culture. And the declaration of equality is throwing that away or challenging that in a really, truly revolutionary manner.

INSKEEP: And after the revolution, Americans moved toward greater equality. Most states expanded voting rights. Some abolished slavery. A few allowed Black men to vote. Jefferson's Virginia did not. And Annette Gordon-Reed says Jefferson understood the contradiction.

GORDON-REED: He believed that slavery was wrong. As a young man, he had come to that conclusion. He had a plan for emancipation but a plan for emancipation that would require Black people to essentially have their own country where they would be free and would meet the United States as equals from their own country because he didn't think Blacks would forgive whites for what they had done, and whites would never give up their prejudices. So we would constantly be in a state of conflict. And, you know, we don't like to hear that, but we kind of have been in a state of conflict.

INSKEEP: When did people who were not included in the promise of equality begin making use of the Declaration of Independence to argue for equality?

GORDON-REED: Right away, right away. People filed freedom suits on the basis of that. I mean, they immediately saw those words as important.

INSKEEP: By 1791, people were quoting Jefferson's words back to him. Benjamin Banneker, the Black naturalist and writer, sent a letter to the white founding father.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Reading) This, sir, was a time in which you clearly saw into the injustice of a state of slavery and that you publicly held forth this true and invaluable doctrine. We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal. But, sir, how pitiable is it to reflect that although you were so fully convinced of the benevolence of the father of mankind, that you should at the same time counteract his mercies in detaining by fraud and violence so numerous a part of my brethren under groaning captivity and cruel oppression.

INSKEEP: Jefferson's declaration became a tool for those denied equal treatment. In 1848, a convention of women at Seneca Falls, N.Y., edited the declaration to make their Declaration of Sentiments.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Reading) We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men and women are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights.

INSKEEP: One of the men who attended that meeting was Frederick Douglass, who had escaped from slavery. As an activist, he denounced the Constitution under which he'd been enslaved. But by the 1850s, Jill Lepore says, he changed his strategy.

LEPORE: Douglass comes to realize the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution - we're not going to win this battle by denouncing them. We'll actually just have to say the country's principles are on our side and then demonstrate that and then push those principles to be realized.

INSKEEP: Douglass did that in an 1852 speech, "What To The Slave Is The 4th Of July?"

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Reading) I have said that the Declaration of Independence is the ring-bolt to the chain of your nation's destiny. So indeed, I regard it. the principles contained in that instrument are saving principles. Stand by those principles. Be true to them on all occasions, in all places, against all foes and at whatever cost.

INSKEEP: Supporters of slavery felt threatened by the Declaration. In the notorious Dred Scott case of 1857, the Supreme Court took it on. The chief justice claimed the original meaning of all men are created equal did not include Black men. One year later, Senator Stephen Douglass said the same.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Stephen Douglas) This doctrine of Lincoln's declaring that men are made equal by the Declaration of Independence and by divine providence is a monstrous heresy.

INSKEEP: OK, that's a Walt Disney World dramatization of the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858. But Senator Douglas really said that. His opponent, Abraham Lincoln, really said this.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Abraham Lincoln) If that Declaration is not the truth, let us get the statute book in which we find it and tear it out.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) No, never.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Abraham Lincoln) Let us stick to it then. Let us stand firmly by it.

(APPLAUSE)

INSKEEP: Three years later, Southern states tried to leave the Union to preserve slavery. The Confederate vice president, Alexander H. Stephens, delivered what's called the Cornerstone Speech. He said Jefferson was wrong to promote equality.

PADDY HIRSCH, BYLINE: (Reading) Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea. Its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests upon the great truth that the Negro is not equal to the white man, that slavery, subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition.

INSKEEP: Stephen's side lost the Civil War, and the states approved three changes to the Constitution. The 14th Amendment echoed Jefferson's language.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: (Reading) Nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty or property without due process of law, nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

INSKEEP: Equality was finally written into the Constitution, and then the Supreme Court took it out. A series of rulings limited federal power to defend civil rights. Yet new groups of people pressed new claims of equality.

LEPORE: By the 1870s, the populist farmers, the Grange movement, writes a new declaration of independence, asserting freedom and independence from the tyranny of monopolies, of corporate monopolies.

INSKEEP: And in the 20th century, Americans continued to insist on the proposition from 1776. At the time of independence, the U.S. did not include Native nations, which were legally separate. Listeners to past readings of the Declaration on this program know the document mentions them only in a single racist phrase. But by 1961, Native people were U.S. citizens, and some made Jefferson's language their own in the Declaration of Indian Purpose.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: (Reading) We believe in the future of a greater America, an America which we were the first to love, where life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness will be a reality in such a future with Indians and all other Americans cooperating.

INSKEEP: Two years later, Americans gathered at the Lincoln Memorial for the March on Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH, "I HAVE A DREAM")

MARTIN LUTHER KING JR: In a sense, we've come to our nation's capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir.

INSKEEP: Martin Luther King said those words five years before his assassination. The San Francisco political leader Harvey Milk invoked them before he was killed in 1978.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MILK")

SEAN PENN: (As Harvey Milk) No matter how hard you try, you can never erase those words from the Declaration of Independence.

(CHEERING)

INSKEEP: He's played there in a movie by Sean Penn. Jill Lepore says it's natural that so many people call on Jefferson's words.

LEPORE: That's where the actual idea comes from. That is a real crucible of the idea of equality - is from people who are being denied it and who are pressing those claims.

INSKEEP: Annette Gordon-Reed says the founders saw equality as a process.

GORDON-REED: Jefferson had this idea, as well, of the next generation carrying a ball forward. And we're sort of impatient with him about that because we want him (laughter) - we wanted him to do more at that point.

INSKEEP: It would be nice if he had freed his own slaves, yes.

GORDON-REED: It'd be nice.

INSKEEP: But you're saying...

GORDON-REED: You know, but the thing is, look, OK. We created a country. We left the largest, most powerful nation on Earth and created a country. Now there are things for you to do.

INSKEEP: And many of our debates on this July Fourth turn on what equality means. What voting rules really give equal access to the ballot? Do abortion laws give a woman equal control over her body? At what point is a fetus entitled to equal rights? For some people, equality is out of style. Some political progressives prefer the term equity. Some Republicans in Texas and Colorado have called for unequal voting power, giving more weight to conservative voters. The global move toward authoritarian rule opposes equality, asserting that some people are more equal than others. Yet Annette Gordon-Reed says Jefferson's declaration remains a guidepost for those who still want it.

GORDON-REED: It's like a great poem. It has a meaning that transcends whatever the person may have been thinking because it is a truth, and people accept it as a truth. And some people fear that, and other people embrace it. But I think far more people in the country have embraced it and that that accounts for the progress that we have had up until this moment. I mean, it's never linear. It's never clear that we're always going to be going forward. But the tendency has been in that direction. And I think the Declaration has helped that along, much more so than the Constitution.

INSKEEP: When the Constitution was drafted, Ben Franklin said it created a republic, if you can keep it. The Declaration states a purpose for that republic, which falls to later generations to keep alive. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: July 4, 2022 at 11:00 PM CDT
In an earlier version of this audio story, we incorrectly referred to Harvey Milk as the mayor of San Francisco. He was a member of the Board of Supervisors.
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Barry Gordemer is an award-winning producer, editor, and director for NPR's Morning Edition. He's helped produce and direct NPR coverage of two Persian Gulf wars, eight presidential elections, the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and hurricanes Katrina and Harvey. He's also produced numerous profiles of actors, musicians, and writers.
Marc Rivers