• The United States Constitution considered that all men were created equal and endowed with certain inalienable rights as previously mentioned in the Declaration of Independence, but even if it cannot always be accurately determined what the Framers really meant to say when they wrote the Constitution, it is quite clear that when they wrote about the rights of men, they meant white men and white men only, regardless of how the Constitution would later be interpreted. The attitudes the Framers had towards those who were not white, adult, and male reflected the social values of the United States which were inherited from Britain; white men were intelligent, strong, and superior to others and had a God-given responsibility to lead those people beneath them, such as women, children, and blacks. Men needed rights to protect themselves and their property, and in turn inferior people would benefit from the rights that white male citizens had.

    Later shifts in social attitudes would cause Americans and the justices of the Supreme Court to interpret the Constitution in more progressive ways regarding different types of people; first with blacks and the slavery issue and later with Jim Crow and civil rights, and eventually with women and suffrage and equal rights. Americans in the 20th century and into the 21st have significantly different attitudes about significant differences between humans, such as race and gender, than the Framers did in the 1780s; this attitude shift was not sudden, but developed gradually over time.

    The Northern states were not always abolitionist territory; in the colonial period, the Northern colonies were involved in slavery, and significant numbers of slaves lived and worked in those colonies, usually in the tobacco or rum industry. Into the 18th century slavery became less useful in the North and abolitionist sentiment grew and influenced state politics; the social attitude of Northerners towards blacks and slaves essentially changed with the obsolescence of slavery. Northerners became decreasingly tolerant of slavery as abolitionist literature gained popularity and people sought an end to the institution on moral grounds. States like Pennsylvania passed laws restricting or eliminating slavery and even hindered the rights of slave owners from the South, where slavery was still very much an inexpensive labor source for cotton planters. State laws hindering the rights of slave owners were struck down in the Supreme Court in Prigg v. Pennsylvania, which had challenged Pennsylvania’s Personal Liberty Act that made it illegal to reclaim slaves and remove them from Pennsylvania. Though the revocation of citizenship status for slaves in Dred Scott v. Sanford was a victory for the rights of slave owners, the increasingly aggressive actions of the abolitionist movement in the North in and out of politics eventually forced the Southern states to secede from the United States and the Civil War came as a result.

    After the Civil War, social change was forced upon the South as the Supreme Court amended the Constitution to forbid slavery, confer citizenship upon all blacks in America and, grant all black men the right to vote with the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth amendments respectively; thus the Supreme Court gave black men all of the rights and privileges that come with American citizenship and attempted to force white men in the South to accept black men as equals. Though with those amendments the Constitution was extended to refer to both black and white men, terrorist organizations in the South such as the Ku Klux Klan sought to make life worse for former slaves after the Civil War than it had been when slavery was still legal. State legislation in the South and people working on their own attempted to frustrate the efforts of black men to vote with poll taxes, literacy tests, intimidation, and violence. The Jim Crow laws were also adopted to keep blacks separated from whites in public places, including public transportation, restaurants, hospitals, and schools, and were unofficially intended to make blacks feel inferior to whites, and these were upheld in 1896 in the Supreme Court in Plessy v. Ferguson, which permitted separate railway cars for black passengers.

    It was not until the 1950s that the movement to make blacks equal in practice and not just in theory seriously began to turn the tide against desegregation. Sweatt v. Painter in 1950 desegregated graduate level universities while Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 challenged the right of states to segregate public schools and forced states to allow black students to learn alongside white students. Eventually the Jim Crow laws were abolished in the South after a long struggle for civil rights for blacks, and it became generally accepted throughout the United States with the help of social engineering in schools and politics that blacks were indeed equal to whites.

    From the colonial period through the 19th century women were considered inferior to men in the United States as in Europe, and the role of women as mother, housekeeper, and servant to their husbands was the accepted social norm. When the suffragette movement began in Europe and carried over to the United States in the late 19th century, women had no one to fight for their political equality and so they had to fight for their own right to vote. Eventually women in America won the right to vote after World War I with the nineteenth amendment, but in spite of that victory women still were resigned to lives as housewives and mothers and relied on husbands to provide money for them and the family.

    Much of the social change in the generally accepted attitude towards women in the mid to late 20th century did not occur because it had been forced by the Supreme Court as it had been in regards to civil rights for blacks with the banishment of slavery and Jim Crow and the affirmation of equal rights among men, but rather through the growing acceptance of the changing role of women, who asserted in the 1960s and 1970s their own equality and demanded change in social norms on their own terms. It became generally accepted over time through the efforts of women that women could aspire to be more than a housewife and should be afforded the opportunity to do anything that men could do. The attempt at the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment, which would have provided full rights for all American citizens without consideration for gender if it had been ratified for adoption into the Constitution, was a result of the struggle for gender equality rather than a catalyst as it had attempted to force and codify further social change based on the demands of the people for social change. Though there are instances in the American workplace and military where women are not completely equal, it has since been generally accepted that women were also equal to men.

    Given the social norms and expectations of 18th century Europe and America, it is unreasonable to assume that the Framers of the Constitution intended that all humans were created equal regardless of race or gender before the Constitution. When the Framers used the word “men” when writing the Constitution, they really did mean white men. It was the changes in social attitudes over time that altered the nature of the Constitution to apply to all men and women, whether that change was largely forced upon society as it had been in regards to black freedom and equality, or gradually accepted by society through the demands of the people with political support as it had been with the rights of women. The Constitution is not a static document, but rather a dynamic one which may change over time based on the leading social attitudes of Americans and political pressure on society.