To understand the Constitution of the United States, we must first understand its historical and ideological foundations. We could begin with the English Magna Carta of 1215, the English Bill of Rights of 1689, or the U.S. Declaration of Independence of 1776, since the U.S. Constitution translates the legal principles of each of these foundational documents into practical terms. This first installment begins with the Declaration of Independence; future installments will show how the Constitution also embodies principles embodied in the Magna Carta and the English Bill of Rights.
The second paragraph of the Declaration concisely defines the most important foundational principles of American government; the Constitution translates these principles into practice by defining the structure and functions of the federal government, and, to a lesser extent, the state governments.
Let’s begin with the first phrase of the Declaration’s second paragraph:
We hold these truths to be self-evident . . .
What does this mean? A “truth” or principle that is self-evident is a truth or principle that is discoverable by reason, by rational thinking. In other words, the truths that are itemized in the rest of the second paragraph are perfectly obvious if one thinks clearly about them. The first self-evident truth that is listed is that all men are created equal.
The term “all men,” according the common usage at the time, meant “all people,” not just men and not just white men. “All men” was and is inclusive. That this understanding is correct is clear from the debates at the Constitutional Convention as reported in James Madison’s Notes of Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787. Next, if all persons are created equal, then there must be a Creator who created all of us as equal persons. The statement that “all men are created equal” makes no sense in an atheistic or agnostic world view: if there is a creation, then logic requires that we acknowledge the existence of the Creator of that creation.
Think about the implications of the alternative: if there is no Creator, then there can be no universal self-evident truths, discernible to rational thought. Instead, each person’s opinion is equally valid, and we have moral anarchy instead of orderly Truths of divine origin.
What does “created equal” mean? Certainly this means that we are all equally the creations of the Creator. In current parlance, we are all equal in the sight of God. God loves each person equally. Also, no person is created to be superior by divine right to any other person, and no person is inherently inferior. Jefferson stated this beautifully in down-to-earth terms in his Letter to Roger Weightman in June of 1826, eight days before his death:
[A]ll eyes are opened, or opening, to the rights of man. The general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view the palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God.
If all persons are equal under God, then all persons should be equal under the law and the Constitution as well. Indeed, the Constitution defines no classes – not by race, gender, religion, or country of origin. By implication, since no classes of persons are defined for special treatment, either favorable or unfavorable, then all persons must be treated equally under the law and the Constitution.