Day of the Declaration
Warring with words
Brian Hubble illustration
Legend says that the emperor Nero “fiddled as Rome burned.” Over time, this phrase expressed frustration with ineffectual, self-centered leadership. This adage came to mind recently when the Louisiana House of Representatives passed a bill requiring some elementary students to recite part of the Declaration of Independence at the start of each day.
The state budget was in deep deficit. Instead of debating how to avoid more cuts that typically fall on public colleges, however, members of the House wasted time debating whether children should memorize the 240-year-old preamble that includes the phrase “all men are created equal.” The preamble to the Declaration of Independence was noble and politically cutting-edge in its day, but its male-centric language is woefully out-of-date.
The attempt to instill the American equality doctrine into the consciousness of children might have been well-intentioned, but the timing was laughable. Just days before the “all men are created equal” bill was overwhelmingly approved by the male-dominated House, a male-dominated House committee killed a Senate-passed proposal intended to require private employers to pay women the same as men.
When it comes to money, American equality is still just for men in the state of Louisiana.
The state’s House of Representatives has underscored that fact for two years in a row. And this year’s bill, found on Legiscan.com, was altered along the way to strike out all specific references to women, including two bizarre changes of the word “her” to “his,” suggesting all employees are men.
The House Labor and Industrial Relations Committee skewered the bill, preventing it from reaching the House floor for debate. In a 10-5 partisan vote, every Republican on the committee voted against it, the New Orleans Advocate reported.
At least 10 House members, overwhelmingly male, apply the Declaration of Independence’s equality doctrine only when it suits their own purposes. The equal pay measure was shot down by them even though the pay gap between men and women in Louisiana is the worst in the country.
A 2014 study completed by the American Association of University Women found that on average women earn 79 percent of the pay earned by men. The AAU reported that the pay gap “was smallest in Washington, D.C., where women were paid 90 percent of what men were paid, and largest in Louisiana, where women were paid 65 percent of what men were paid.”
When House committee members killed the equal pay bill in mid-May, they essentially told women in Louisiana that they were only 65 percent “equal” to men.
Perhaps it was a coincidence, or maybe someone in the Senate enjoys poetic justice, but both “equality” measures met the same fate: committee death.
The “all men are created equal” measure died on arrival in the Senate and Governmental Affairs Committee. That committee includes three of the sponsors of the equal pay proposal.
Committee staff attorney J. Ashley Mitchell Carter says that House Bill 1035 requiring some children to recite the preamble arrived in the Senate committee too late to be considered in the regular session. To be considered again, it must be refiled in a future legislative session.
Surely a proposal to require recitation of the Declaration of Independence’s preamble will never return to public discourse again. Children shouldn’t be forced to memorize sexist language, even if it does create the basis of American democracy.
As most Americans know, the Declaration of Independence was a letter written to King George III, listing the colonists’ reasons for severing ties with Great Britain. Before listing the King’s many abuses on his American subjects, Thomas Jefferson, author of the document, wrote a preamble that says it is “self-evident that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Jefferson borrowed the document’s reasoning from British political philosopher John Locke. Locke argued that people create governments to protect them from those who would rob them of “life, liberty and property.” In his view, they had the right to overthrow a government that failed to protect those rights. The Americans used Locke’s logic to justify their revolution against Britain. The “pursuit of happiness” phrase was a flourish of Jefferson’s own.
Jefferson’s preamble also says that “Governments are instituted among Men …”
The document actually capitalizes the M in the word “men.” Writers of the period had a fondness for capitalizing the first letter of words for emphasis, so the intended emphasis on the male gender is unmistakable. The word “Men” gets the same emphasis as the words “Creator,” “Rights,” “Life,” “Liberty” and “Happiness.”
Women, especially married women, had few legal rights in the early Republic, says History Now, The Journal of The Gilder Lehrman Institute. “As it turned out, discrimination against women in the area of the franchise lasted the longest of any disadvantaged group,” says an article entitled “The Legal Status of Women 1776-1830.” In other words, America’s government denied women rights that all free men took for granted. Women didn’t even get the right to vote nationally until 1920.
Stressing today’s more equitable version of the equality doctrine is an honorable goal, but women in Louisiana are still waiting for their state government to live up to it.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”