Was there a contradiction in fighting for unalienable rights when not everyone’s rights were taken into consideration?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The Declaration of Independence declares that there are certain "unalienable rights," which include "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." These are rights that cannot be taken away and that are due to everyone. Thomas Jefferson, who wrote the Declaration, took this idea from Locke, Hobbes, and other philosophers who believed that people had certain inherent rights that the government had to abide by. This idea is referred to as the Social Contract.

There was a definite contradiction between the idea of unalienable rights, for which the American Revolution was fought, and the way in which some people in the American colonies lived at the time. For example, enslaved people did not have the right to life, liberty, or the pursuit of happiness, as their movements were controlled by their masters. They were not free to choose their own paths or even to marry the person they choose. They were definitely not free to choose a path towards happiness, and they could not vote or hold public office. Native Americans were also denied these rights, as their lands were often taken away from them. Women's liberties to work and choose their own paths were also curtailed. Therefore, the Founders only extended these rights to white men.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson writes the following words:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable writes, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness

It's a famous statement, but as your question suggests, the historical realities fell far short of the ideals Jefferson espoused. Indeed, one of the critical themes of social and political reform across United States history has been the drive to bring reality more closely in line with the ideals the country would claim to have been founded on.

When the United States was founded, the agrarian south was a slave-based society. (Furthermore, with the invention of the cotton gin, slavery would only proceed to become more entrenched in that part of the country.) This history of slavery is the most infamous example by which the United States' political reality fell far short of its ideals. In addition to slavery, you can also discuss the subject of women's rights. If you look back towards the early history of the United States, you'd find that women were unable to vote, and were kept in a state of economic dependency. This history of inequality would inspire the creation of the Women's Rights Movement.

To conclude, the United States has been a country beset with a great deal of inequality across its history. The struggle to bring reality more closely in line with its ideals has been one of the critical themes which runs across United States history.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

There is no question that the Declaration of Independence’s statement that “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” was not immediately realized in the final draft of the Constitution of the United States. One can argue that, consequently, there did exist a contradiction between these documents’ assertions and the realities that existed in the decades following their adoption. I would argue, however, that such an assertion gives short shrift to the depth of divisions among citizens of the newly established country regarding the issue of slavery and the extent of the struggle by abolitionists among the country’s founders to both forge a new nation and resolve that the practice of slavery was antithetical to the nascent nation’s ideals.

As students of American history know, the issue of slavery was the single most contentious debated during the country’s founding. Serious geographical, cultural, and economic differences existed between the northern and southern halves of the republic. The South, of course, was an agrarian society heavily dependent upon slavery as a source of labor. Southern politicians and wealthy plantation owners fought tenaciously to preserve the right to own slaves, and Northern politicians decided that their higher immediate priority—independence and the forging of a viable nation-state—would have to be subordinated, at least temporarily, to the South’s demand for the right to continue the practice of slavery. Easy resolution of that issue was, of course, elusive, and the issue was ultimately decided by the outcome of the Civil War.

That some of the Founding Fathers were slave-owners has tarnished their image among many Americans. Clearly, such a record is a blight on one’s historical record. At the same time, it is interesting that even many of these slave-owners, particularly Benjamin Franklin, understood that the institution of slavery was anachronistic and destined to go away (though this does not excuse their participation in the institution). The division between North and South, however, was borne of the bitter differences between regions regarding the future of slavery, and the country’s histories of both slavery and institutionalized segregation marked a distinct and unfortunate contradiction between ideals and practice—a phenomenon that we would see repeated in the issue of women's suffrage.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team

We’ll help your grades soar

Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.

  • 30,000+ book summaries
  • 20% study tools discount
  • Ad-free content
  • PDF downloads
  • 300,000+ answers
  • 5-star customer support
Start your 48-Hour Free Trial