Looking back, as we read the Declaration of Independence, we can easily criticize the hypocrisy of this slaveholder and exploiter of power over women. From that perspective, we can read Jefferson’s use of “men” to be limited to “White” males. And, of course, that’s true; but Jefferson’s point was not about race or gender or excluding certain types of each from power,
Rather it was about blowing up a central pillar of virtually all human societies, particularly those in Europe in the 18C: the domination of political societies by royalty/nobility/aristocracy. Whether he foresaw or would have endorsed the kind of approach to rights and citizenship that we have in the 21 C are interesting but separate questions; it’s not at all clear that he was a MLK “I have a dream” sort of guy.
In this way the Declaration falls into line with Magna Carta, that other staple of the story of “democratic progress” (an overloaded and simplistic version of which Historians refer to derisively as “Whig history, featuring large doses of inevitability and self-congratulatory moralizing). Magna Carta (1215) was NOT a democratic document. Yes, there were some references to the treatment of ordinary folks in medieval England, but the Barons did not force King John to the table at Runnymede (about five miles from Heathrow Airport) for the good of the common man. They were about protecting themselves and limiting the power of the Crown.
Similarly, the Declaration of Independence was not about democracy in the sense of “one-person, one-vote,” it was about rejecting the power of the Crown (actually more anti-Parliament than anti-King) and allowing the (white male) British citizens of the thirteen colonies to run their own show. In order to reject the deeply embedded ideas of fixed social status, the inheritance of power, and a whiff of the “divine right of kings,” Jefferson had to tear down these claims of privilege. For this purpose, “all men are created equal” is a tersely powerful claim.
Since then, with no small amount of work, risk and historical contingency (aka “luck”) they (we!) made it work.
This is not to say that the Founding Fathers achieved political utopia (nor have we). The American “Revolution” was about recognizing the shift of power from one set of white males to another set of white males. It is to say that they achieved their goal from their own perspective and resolved the largest issue facing them. The fact that later generations took their creation and moved it in a particular direction was not their fault or glory (depending on your perspective).
Still, if Magna Carta’s effort to constrain royal power grabs was a plausible and useful predicate to the Declaration, then the Declaration has been a plausible and useful predicate to the development of modern political society in the US (and the world). It took a further 90 years to make clear that Africans held in slavery were (at least nominally) included in that “all men” who were created equal. It has taken a further 150 years to make much of that nominal equality more real. It took most of the 19C to break down the legal limits on the rights of women, and almost 150 until they had the right to vote, and that, too, is a work still very much in progress.
It was only when the status and treatment of these two major segments of our population were significantly addressed that other aspects of “all men” could be dealt with. Thus, we now wrestle with questions of the status and treatment of those with less common gender identities and preferences.
All of these developments reflect changes in the popular epistemology; i.e., in the interpretation of “all men” and the implementation of that premise in law and practice. Throughout this time, the words have remained the same, but it clear that their meaning has changed. Even the 14th Amendment, the greatest constitutional change since 1787, merely says that “all persons” shall be entitled to the “equal protection of the laws.” In the aftermath of the Civil War, even though there is no mention of Africans, African-Americans, Negroes, Blacks, or former slaves, it was clear that the words meant something different than they had previously and now included these people.
The (lapsed) effort to adopt the “Equal Rights Amendment” in the late 20C (which expressly referred to sex) was seen as necessary because the judicial interpretation of the Constitution didn’t fully recognize such equality. Virtually all of its purpose has been accomplished through revised judicial interpretation and widespread social and statutory changes. (although these are perhaps at risk per Justice Thomas’ rationale in overturning Roe). These are the evidence of epistemological change and they co-evolve. As generations rise and fade, the culture in which they are raised nudge them in different directions. For example, I was raised to refer to women as “Mrs.” or “Miss,” which I doubt is the case for most folks born in the last 40 years.
This process of change is not smooth or one-way, as the election of an African-American as President fourteen years ago and his replacement by a misogynistic and racist individual provide ample testimony. Such changes require attention and effort…and patience.
All of which is to say that Jefferson’s words are still sufficient, but it is up to us in the 21C to say what we mean by “all men are created equal.”