The proclamation that all men are created equal took a long time to fulfill in a nation that originally denied political rights to all but propertied white males.
The second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence begins with the ringing words, “We hold these truths to be self-evident: That all men are created equal…” Thomas Jefferson’s words go on to highlight the “unalienable” rights of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” But, as students of American history have long pointed out, this would not become reality for over two hundred years. The development of a democratic society in which all members share both political and social rights, took a very long time in American history.
The Early Republic
Framers of the United States Constitution were cautious and followed the precepts known to them regarding representation. Only white males that owned property (land) could participate politically. The Constitution, as it was originally ratified, only allowed for the House of Representatives to be elected by direct popular vote. The President, ultimately, was elected by an Electoral College and Senators serving in the national legislature were appointed by state legislatures. Members of the Judiciary were appointed.
By the 1820s, states began to change voting qualifications to open the franchise to all white males whether they owned property or not. Historians estimate that between 1824 and 1828, nearly one million new voters were eligible to participate in the political life of the fledgling nation. This led to the era of Jacksonian Democracy.
By the 1840s, groups of women began to actively advocate for the right to vote. The 1848 Seneca Falls Convention publicized the Declaration of Sentiments, written by early Feminist leaders Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott. The early Women’s Movement would join forces with a growing Abolitionist Movement, hopeful that their political emancipation would come with the emancipation of slaves. The 15th Amendment proved them wrong.
The Post Civil War Years
The Fifteenth Amendment, adopted in 1870, enunciated the right to vote by all citizens regardless of “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” On the heels of the 1868 Fourteenth Amendment guaranteeing “equal protection of the laws” and “due process,” the Fifteenth Amendment enabled African Americans to participate politically, but only males.
Even as Southern states sought to circumvent Reconstruction legislation designed to mainstream freedman into the political system, social equality was not addressed. Additionally, the clamor to include women in the political process met with deaf ears.
The “separate but equal” doctrine, affirmed by the 1896 Supreme Court case Plessy v Ferguson, denied blacks social equality while prohibitive policies geared toward political participation kept blacks from exercising the vote. Literacy tests, poll taxes, and other local devices in the South stifled the notion that “all men are created equal.”
Women finally achieved the right to vote in 1920 with the adoption of the Twentieth Amendment, although some territorial jurisdictions had already allowed women to vote in the late 1800s. It was not until 1964 that the Twenty-Fourth Amendment did away with the “poll tax” as a requirement to vote in a national election. By 1971, citizens attaining the age of 18 were given the right to vote.
Social Equality in the United States
Enough evidence exists from the lives of post Civil War Radical Republicans that social equality between races was not a part of the political equality enshrined in federal law and Constitutional amendments. Social equality began with Brown v. Board of Education when the Warren Court ruled that separate but equal was “inherently unequal.” The inability of African American students to obtain an equal education directly impacted their ability to be successful in society.
Ultimately, the Civil Rights movement and President Lyndon B. Johnson’s legislative initiatives would pave the road toward social equality for all citizens. Over two hundred years after Jefferson’s Declaration, the nation would truly become the world’s greatest democracy.
- Alfred H. Kelly and Winfred A. Harbison, The American Constitution: Its Origins & Development