Frances Scott Key would no doubt, suffer a severe bout of apoplexy, were he able to listen in on our school children’s usual rendition of his poem, The Star- Spangled Banner. Written by him during the War of 1812, while a military prisoner aboard a British Warship, Key was exultant in his unexpected discovery that Ft. Sumpter (and, notably, its flag) had survived the night’s heavy bombardment by English naval canons. Key’s resultant poem, later set to music, would become our national anthem. He, if present and listening to those schoolchildren, would hear his poem, as sung, commence with the memorized but, evidently not understood, words, “My Country tisovthee..,” which years later, would properly translate to “My Country t’is (it is) of thee.” Repetition of such three conjoined and multiply fractured words, are very seriously and dutifully intoned at every primary school assembly.
In similar fashion, many of our teachings, as a regular part of the early curriculum, were dutifully committed to the young student’s memory, if not to his understanding. An interesting illustration is present in the perpetually misunderstood assertion, quoted from the American Declaration of Independence, “All men are created equal….”
The Founding Fathers were, arguably, far above the average contemporary colonial American in erudition and dedicated foresight, and certainly did not intend to assert that all men are equal, in the modern sense of the word. It is the rare scientist that can bravely claim that he is the equal of Einstein or Newton, the rare essayist who can boast that he is the equal of a Faulkner or a Dickens, nor a boastful basketball player who can credibly assert that he is the equal of Michael Jordan. It is simply and empirically untrue that men are all born equal in capabilities and no such interpretation was ever intended.
The born equality, declared by the founders, was the then radical notion of a classless society; a nation without class distinction determined by privileged birth, which was an inequitable feature of the societies of England and Europe for many centuries. No longer, in this new experiment in Republican Democracy, was there to be a lifelong designation of societal status (merely) by the attribution of birth. This, in accurate fact, is the meaning and the intention of the word “equality,” famously expressed in the Declaration of Independence.
In the interest of a responsible recitation of American history, it is necessary to observe that such declaration of natural born equality, for too long a time, was legally inapplicable to black people, whose status, continuing through the mid-nineteenth century, [especially in the agricultural south,] was no more exalted than that of mere farm equipment. It is also necessary to recognize the plight of women who, until relatively recently, could not legally vote or transact business. The recognition of equal rights for all Americans, has, at last, become incorporated into our laws and institutional understanding, the application of which, in some cases, still need more satisfactory resolution.
Equality under the law for all citizens, has been the most admirable achievement of our democratic republic and was due to an ultimate societal recognition of equity among citizens [ unrelated to the language of the Declaration of Independence]. The valuable franchise of equality of opportunity, although, concededly, made possible by the founders’ early elimination of class distinction, was nurtured over time as part of the maturing moral framework of American society. Admittedly, more challenging economically or physically for some citizens than for others, success and upward progress, is the undertaken responsibility of the individual, a matter largely left to his own unfettered enterprise.
We have written about man’s unlimited freedom to choose a path which is life- enhancing and self fulfilling. We have often recommended reading good literature, participation in the arts and humanities or any other desired stimulating and enjoyable pursuit. In this area, we all have complete and unlimited equality of choice as to whether to live an insular, unstimulating and limited existence, or to take advantage of the generous gift of evolution, our advanced brain, whose utilization can provide a full and satisfying life. As to the choice of quality of life, all men have eternally been born equal.