By Wenbin Yuan， July 4, 2023
Two hundred and forty-seven years ago, Thomas Jefferson made a remarkable contribution to humanity: he authored a groundbreaking document that laid the foundation for our modern society. Despite living in a time marked by the tyranny of feudal lords, oppression by colonial powers, and incessant wars of aggression, Jefferson, himself a slave owner, advocated for the equality of all men.
The Continental Congress appointed a five-member committee tasked with drafting the Declaration of Independence. Among its members was Thomas Jefferson, a renowned lawyer and Roman Republic historian, the drafter of the Virginia Declaration of Rights, and a respected statesman known for his profound understanding of political theory and natural rights. His extensive knowledge of the Roman Republic and the Bible further distinguished him as an unparalleled intellect.
The groundbreaking Declaration of Independence, with its emphasis on human rights, demarcates modern societies from feudalist ones and established a new landmark for a new era of humanity. Almost all advanced countries in the world would adopt similar ideas to a greater or lesser extent, sooner or later in the following years.
Jefferson wanted the United States to avoid the fate of ancient Rome Republic that met its demise after five hundred years through an elite, charismatic leader: Julius Caesar. Jefferson sought to limit the power of elites through the notion that “all men are created equal”, so that the president, the powerful generals, and the ordinary citizens would be equally bound by the same laws.
Jefferson’s idea captured the hearts and minds of the American people in seeking the independence, and helped General Washington successfully defeat the mighty British Empire. Thus, the United States of America, the world’s first constitutional democracy, was established with the beloved general Washington as its president, having rejected the offer of a throne.
In fact, the country’s entire cast of founders were talented, well-rounded lawyers and historians, and politicians who were not only familiar with the shortcomings of the Roman republic, Greek democracy and feudalism, but were also up-to-date with the technologies and science of the times, such as John Locke and many other new thoughts in Europe. Alexander Hamilton’s “Federalist Papers”, for example, synthesized a large number of essays by politicians of the ancient Roman Republic. The polymath Benjamin Franklin invented electricity and also wrote widely on political matters. Franklin argued that “the rule of law and freedom are the cornerstones of maintaining social order and protecting the rights of citizens.” Franklin’s ideas later became the basis for the Bill of Rights in the U.S. Constitution, including the First Amendment, which protected freedom of speech.
Jefferson himself was considered the best mathematician, medical doctor, and metallographic scholar of his time. He was fluent in Latin, French and Hebrew, and could calculate the time of a lunar or solar eclipse anywhere in the world. Jefferson declined to be re-elected as the president of US in his later years, and went to great lengths to re-edit the story of Bible in English, Hebrew, French, and Latin, resulting in the “Jefferson Bible” centered on Jesus’ morals and philosophies, which introduced the notion of “separation of church and state”, making sure no religious doctrines would interfere with the modern governance.
In John Adams’ “Thoughts on Government”, Adams argued for institutions and laws to constrain and counterbalance the power of government. He believed that the institutional constraints could prevent abuse of power and tyranny, and ensure just and equitable governance. Adams also argued that the sustainable development of a democratic republic needs to be based on the moral character and education of its citizens. Only citizens with good morals and adequate education can effectively participate in self-governance and safeguard the public interest.
In these early statements by the founding fathers, we see why so many of the so-called democracies around the world modeled after the United States eventually failed. It turns out that an independent legal system based on the equality of all human beings, the separation of government and religion, and a civic education tradition based on morality and ethics are indispensable elements of a democratic system. These DNAs of conceptual nation making innovations all trace back to Jefferson and it all traced back to the principle of “All Men Are Created Equal”.
It is worth noting that while Jefferson proposed the founding idea of equality for all. However, he was himself a slave owner, and had more than six hundred slaves in his lifetime and had unwilling sexual relations with at least one of his female slaves. Thus, apparently Jefferson primarily considered white men to be stakeholders in his idea. Thankfully the intellectual and judicial interpretation of the concept of “all men” has undergone a profound evolutionary process in the past two hundred and forty seven years, propelled by various peaceful and violent movements that were inspired by the principle of “All Men Are Created Equal”.
These movements are commemorated by a series of legislative acts: the Civil Rights Proclamation of 1863, the Civil Rights Act of 1866, the Women’s Suffrage Act of 1920, the Repeal of Chinese Exclusion Act of 1943 (RCEA), the Affirmative Action Act (AA) proclaimed through the Presidential Administrative Act of 1961, the Civil Rights Act (CRA) of 1964-1965, the Equal Housing Act (EHA) of 1968, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990, and the Affordable Care Act (ACA) of 2010, all of which are based on the principle that “all men are created equal”.
The passages of civil rights laws over the past 80 years since the landmark 1943 repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act or the “Magnuson Act” reflects further evolution of the concept of “all men”. At first all men meant white men. Then the notion evolved to include white women, then blacks, and then with the Magnuson Act in 1943, the Chinese. The Magnuson Act stood for a wider commitment to abolish race as a consideration for eligibility in the club of “all men”. Later Kennedy’s Affirmative Action Executive Order in 1961 began requiring governments and large private institutions to employ appropriate numbers of minorities. Later still, after months of struggle, the people of Milwaukee won equal housing rights and the fair access to public places in America. The 1990 American with Disabilities Act (ADA) for people with unique disabilities established a unique milestone which is still a unique concept of equality of “all men” in the world to allow disabled people to enjoy all public facilities in the US, which cost US about $20b annually but was finally accepted by general public without further disputes.
The passage of each of these bills was obtained through long and sometimes bloody struggle by minority groups. The evolution of this concept of “All Men Are Created Equal” to the point that everyone who reaches the age of 18 after birth in the United States is included in the definition of “all men” has been a long and ardurous process that Jefferson could not have anticipated when he signed the Declaration of Independence.
Despite the vast inequalities that still exist in the United States, the idea that all men are created equal has been deeply ingrained in the hearts and minds of Americans. Since the repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1943, significant progress has been made in the human rights legislation. This progress has also benefited many generations of new immigrants, who can draw wisdom from the lessons of history. They need to be grateful for the immense contributions made by their predecessors toward equity for all human beings and do their own part to ensure history will not be forgotten nor its mistakes repeated.
In this June, the Supreme Court just passed the anti-affirmative action law “Fair Admissions v. Harvard College” and “Students for Fair Admissions v. The University of North Carolina”. This unexpected rejection of affirmative action law signals that the fight for equality is not over. If we are not careful, hard-won progress in equality will be undone by old forces. We need only consider the situation of how many women were seeking abortions out of state in the last year to realize how quickly rights can be taken away in the United States.
In the past two hundred years, the concept of equal rights for all initiated in the US has gradually gained ground and momentum in countries throughout the world, too. Our neighbor Canada, for instance, passed the Canadian Human Rights Act in 1977 (the same year China abolished the birth-background-based system to allow university admission based on only test scores of their own regions). Don’t forget, however, that Canada also passed the Chinese Immigration Act in 1885, which imposed a “per capita tax” on new Chinese entering Canada. Then on July 1, 1923, the Canada National Day, Canada implemented a new Chinese Immigration Act. The law, later known as Canada’s “Chinese Exclusion Act”, almost completely banned Chinese from entering Canada until May 14, 1947. In this regard. Of course, Canada’s progress in realizing equality for all Canadians is also evident after 1947.
Recently, Chinese Canadian groups have been reflecting on the tragic history of Canada’s “Chinese Immigration Act” and the progress of human rights in Canada over the past 78 years through exhibitions and seminars. On May 28 of this year, the Montreal Chinese Federation also held a symposium to commemorate the centennial of the “Chinese Exclusion Act”. A number of Chinese communities in Metro Vancouver jointly held a commemoration forum in June. Canadian Senators Hu Yuanbao and Hu Zixiu and the Chinese Canadians Joint Action Foundation also held a related event in the Canadian Senate Hall on June 23, highlighting the voice of Chinese Canadians and Chinese Americans in opposing discrimination and refusing history to repeat itself.
During the French Revolution of 1789, freedom, equality, and fraternity became slogans, and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen explicitly enshrined equality for all in law, attacking feudal privileges and inequality.
South Africa, the last apartheid country in the world, also passed a Bill of Rights following the end of apartheid. The South African Constitution, adopted in 1996, established broad principles of human rights protection and completely abolished apartheid and discriminatory policies.
At the international level, the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, proclaiming that all human beings are created equal and establishing the fundamental rights of citizens. Since then, many international human rights conventions and legal instruments have been adopted with the aim of guaranteeing equality and human rights for all.
Although the world is still a long way from Jefferson’s first concept of “equality for all”, the pursuit of equality for all has been increasingly recognized and embodied in modern society through legislation and the continuous strengthening of international consensus. Judging from the development of human rights in the past 80 years (after the Repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act), the United States has become one of the world’s role models of civil rights and equality from the dark era of human rights before 1943. Every step forward in this process is hard won and evidently worth celebrating. For Chinese people living in the United States, it is especially worth cherishing and celebrating. We must remember the past to ensure that historic tragedies do not repeat themselves and the future generations shall maintain the momentum in the long journey of realizing “all men are created equal”.
The past is not forgotten, and it is our teacher for the future. Only by not forgetting the lessons of history and actively participating in current politics will there be no repetition of appalling events such as the recent ethnic cleansing in places like Uganda and Kosovo, or legal discrimination against Chinese people in the United States. Jefferson’s “right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” in the Declaration of Independence laid the foundation for the American founding DNA by enabling the ordinary people to live with dignity and liberty to pursue their own happiness.