All men are created equal
|Part of a Philosophy series on|
|Rights by claimant|
|Other groups of rights|
The quotation "All men are created equal" has been called an "immortal declaration," and "perhaps [the] single phrase" of the American Revolutionary period with the greatest "continuing importance." Thomas Jefferson first used the phrase in the U.S. Declaration of Independence, which he penned in 1776 during the beginning of the American Revolution. It was thereafter quoted and incorporated into speeches by a wide array of substantial figures in American political and social life in the United States. The final form of the phrase was stylized by Benjamin Franklin.
Origin of Thomas Jefferson's use of the phrase
Thomas Jefferson, at the age of 33, may have also borrowed the expression from an Italian friend and neighbor, Philip Mazzei, as noted by Joint Resolution 175 of the 103rd Congress as well as by John F. Kennedy in A Nation of Immigrants.
In 1776 the Second Continental Congress asked Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Robert Livingston, and Roger Sherman to write the Declaration of Independence. This Committee of Five voted to have Thomas Jefferson write the document. After Jefferson finished he gave the document to Franklin to proof. Franklin suggested minor changes, and one of them stands out far more than the others. Jefferson had written, "We hold these truths to be sacred and un-deniable..." Franklin changed it to, "We hold these truths to be self-evident."
The second paragraph of the United States Declaration of Independence starts as follows:
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. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed;
"all men are by nature equally free and independent, and have certain inherent rights of which . . . they cannot deprive or divest their posterity; namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety."
George Mason was an elder-planter who had originally stated John Locke's theory of natural rights:
"All men are born equally free and independent and have certain inherent natural rights of which they cannot, by any compact, deprive or divest their posterity; among which are the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety."
Mason's draft was accepted by a small committee and then rejected by the Virginia Convention. Thomas Jefferson, a competent Virginia lawyer, saw this as a problem in legal writing and chose words that were more acceptable to the Second Continental Congress.
Article I. All men are born free and equal, and have certain natural, essential, and unalienable rights; among which may be reckoned the right of enjoying and defending their lives and liberties; that of acquiring, possessing, and protecting property; in fine, that of seeking and obtaining their safety and happiness.
The plaintiffs in the cases of Brom and Bett v. John Ashley and Commonwealth v. Nathaniel Jennison argued that this provision abolished slavery in Massachusetts. The latter case resulted in a "sweeping declaration . . . that the institution of slavery was incompatible with the principles of liberty and legal equality articulated in the new Massachusetts Constitution".
The phrase has since been considered a hallmark statement in democratic constitutions and similar human rights instruments, many of which have adopted the phrase or variants thereof.
Slavery and the phrase
The contradiction between the claim that "all men are created equal" and the existence of American slavery attracted comment when the Declaration of Independence was first published. Before final approval, Congress, having made a few alterations to some of the wording, also deleted nearly a fourth of the draft, including a passage critical of the slave trade. At that time many members of Congress, including Jefferson, owned slaves, which clearly factored into their decision to delete the controversial "anti-slavery" passage. In 1776, abolitionist Thomas Day responding to the hypocrisy in the Declaration wrote, though the first draft stated " All free men are created equal":
If there be an object truly ridiculous in nature, it is an American patriot, signing resolutions of independency with the one hand, and with the other brandishing a whip over his affrighted slaves.
The Rhodesian declaration of independence, ratified in November 1965, is based on the American one, however, it omits the phrase "all men are created equal", along with "the consent of the governed".
- Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen (1789), article 1: "Men are born and remain free and equal in rights. Social distinctions may be founded only upon the general good."
- Is-ought problem
- John Ball (1381), "When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?"
- Second-class citizen
- Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), article 1: "All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights..."
- Equality before the law
- See, e.g., Jack P. Greene, All Men Are Created Equal: Some Reflections on the Character of the American Revolution (1976). p. 5: "Perhaps no single phrase from the Revolutionary era has had such continuing importance in American public life as the dictum 'all men are created equal'".
- John Wynne Jeudwine, Pious Phrases in Politics: An Examination of Some Popular Catchwords, their Misuse and Meanings (1919), p. 27, quoting Senator Lyman Trumbull of Illinois, author of the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, as referencing the "immortal declaration that all men are created equal".
- Peterson, Merrill. Thomas Jefferson and the New Nation: A biography. p90. Oxford University Press, 1970.
- Philip Mazzei, The Virginia Gazette, 1774. Translated by a friend and neighbor, Thomas Jefferson:
Tutti gli uomini sono per natura egualmente liberi e indipendenti. Quest'eguaglianza è necessaria per costituire un governo libero. Bisogna che ognuno sia uguale all'altro nel diritto naturale.
All men are by nature equally free and independent. Such equality is necessary in order to create a free government.
All men must be equal to each other in natural law
- According to Joint Resolution 175 of the 103rd Congress, "the phrase in the Declaration of Independence 'All men are created equal' was suggested by the Italian patriot and immigrant Philip Mazzei. http://frwebgate.access.gpo.gov/cgi-bin/getdoc.cgi?dbname=103_cong_bills&docid=f:hj175eh.pdf
- "The great doctrine 'All men are created equal' incorporated into the Declaration of Independence by Thomas Jefferson, was paraphrased from the writing of Philip Mazzei, an Italian-born patriot and pamphleteer, who was a close friend of Jefferson." by John F. Kennedy, A Nation of Immigrants pp. 15-16
- s:United States Declaration of Independence
- Virginia Declaration of Rights
- Blumrosen, Alfred W. and Ruth G., Slave Nation: How Slavery United the Colonies and Sparked the American Revolution, Sourcebooks, 2005, pp. 125-26.
- Article I, Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts (1780)
- John J. Patrick, Founding the Republic, pp. 74–75
- The Massachusetts Constitution, Judicial Review and Slavery — The Quock Walker Case, Massachusetts Judicial Branch (2007).
- UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Preamble: Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity, and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world & Article 1: All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood. - http://www.un.org/en/documents/udhr/
- Armitage, David. The Declaration Of Independence: A Global History. 76–77. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2007. ISBN 978-0-674-02282-9
- Palley, Claire (1966). The Constitutional History and Law of Southern Rhodesia 1888–1965, with Special Reference to Imperial Control (First ed.). Oxford: Clarendon Press. p. 750. OCLC 406157.
- Hillier, Tim (1998). Sourcebook on Public International Law (First ed.). London & Sydney: Cavendish Publishing. p. 207. ISBN 1-85941-050-2.
- Gowlland-Debbas, Vera (1990). Collective Responses to Illegal Acts in International Law: United Nations action in the question of Southern Rhodesia (First ed.). Leiden and New York: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers. p. 71. ISBN 0-7923-0811-5.
- Letter Addressed to the Commonalty of Scotland by John Knox, 1558 - possibly the earliest historical occurrence of the phrase "all men are equal"