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.
On July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the proclamation of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson died. I suspect that he regarded the Declaration with its immortal words he crafted as the most significant monument to his life and labors, far more than monuments of stone or bronze.
Did Jefferson a Virginia patrician and slaveholder really believe that all men are created? Could he have been totally unaware of the overt contradiction between enslaved Africans and their white masters and oppressors? Did he not realize that “men” excluded women and that gender inequality was the norm? Was Jefferson a hypocrite whose way all life contradicted his inspiring rhetoric? My sense is that for him and his peer’s “men” was a generic term that excluded people of color and women.
Was the story to end here that efforts to stamp out his memory by destroying appropriate monuments and statues are not only understandable but even defensible. Yet what Jefferson bequeathed to us in the Declaration’s preamble is a canvas upon which later generations have continued to expand our understanding of “men.” It’s been a painful and all too slow process, but ultimately the slaves were freed and given the dignity of being regarded as “men.” It took well over a century for the suffragettes to him achieve their goal of gender equality.
George Washington was also a slaveholder, yet our first president refused a third term, thereby affirming that in electing a President the nation was not crowning a king. Jefferson, Washington and virtually the entire generation created the basic structure of the United States and set us out upon the task to fashion a social order that continually expands our perception of “men.”
We are regrettably not yet a perfect society that is totally inclusive to all. The mantra Black Lives Matter is a reminder that we have yet to fully expand “men” to embrace every one of us.
Following the French Revolution an empowered citizenry resorted to the guillotine to behead former oppressors in those suspected of opposing the new regime. The current frenzy to behead statues and destroyed monuments that memorialize proponents of racism and exclusion. Yet there is an important distinction between the founders and defenders of the Confederacy that in its defense of slavery sought to abort the union and the generation of the founders.
Despite their obvious limitations and perspectives, with their affirmation of the equality of all “men” they set us on the journey to create a more perfect union. The glorious history of our nation is in its determination to continually redefine and broaden “men” to include us all. Obviously and regrettably we are not there yet, but the arc of history continues to bend and to expand to attain total inclusiveness.
From the holy city of Jerusalem my best wishes for a Shabbat Shalom u’Mevorach, a Shabbat of peace and blessing.
Rabbi Arnold M Goodman
Senior Rabbinic Scholar