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date: 06 August 2020


“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal” Although these words from the Declaration of Independence are among the most familiar in the American canon, much of American history challenges the principle they proclaim.
  • James T. Kloppenberg


From the nation's beginnings onward, certain groups of Americans were judged unequal, not according to their virtue, intelligence, or talent, but rather on the basis of race, religion, gender, or wealth. Non-whites, women, some immigrants, and the propertyless were denied the privileges and obligations of citizenship, despite the nation's ostensible commitment to the principles of legal and political equality.

Yet Thomas Jefferson's ringing declaration, even if not fully observed in practice, nevertheless echoed long and loud. Successive generations of reformers—Jeffersonians and Jacksonians challenging economic privilege; abolitionists challenging slavery women s rights and woman suffrage advocates challenging the subjugation of women civil libertarians challenging the suppression of dissent farmers and workers challenging the unchecked prerogatives of capital and critics of intolerance challenging religious ethnic and racial injustice invoked the principle of equality as one of their primary weapons Protracted and sometimes bloody as their battles were these crusaders prevailed ...

A version of this article originally appeared in The Oxford Companion to United States History.

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