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The quotation "all men are created equal" is found in the United States Declaration of Independence. The final form of the sentence was stylized by Benjamin Franklin and penned by Thomas Jefferson during the beginning of the Revolutionary War in 1776. It reads:
"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."
The phrase echoes the words of John Locke in his second treatise on government, and other authors as early as the 13th century. Jefferson applied the concept in his original draft of the declaration. 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. It has been called an "immortal declaration", and "perhaps [the] single phrase" of the American Revolutionary period with the greatest "continuing importance."
Thomas Jefferson, through his friendship with Marquis de Lafayette, was heavily influenced by French philosophers of the Age of Enlightenment, such as Voltaire, Rousseau and Montesquieu. In their often censored writings, those philosophers advocated that men were born free and equal. This later led to the French Revolution of 1789 and the concept of Human Rights (Droits de l'Homme in French). At the age of 33, Jefferson may have also borrowed the expression from an Italian friend and neighbor, Philip Mazzei, born in Prato, as noted by Joint Resolution 175 of the 103rd Congress as well as by John F. Kennedy in A Nation of Immigrants.
In English history there exists earlier uses of nearly the same phrase. First by the medieval priest John Ball who at the outbreak of the 1381 Peasants Revolt in his famous sermon posited the question "When Adam delved and Eve span, Who was then the gentleman?" and proclaimed "From the beginning all men by nature were created alike". In his 1690 work Second Treatise of Government the philosopher John Locke argues that in the "state of nature" that existed before the formation of governments all men were created equal. Another example is in John Milton's 1649 book called The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates, written after the First English Civil War to defend the actions and rights of the Parliamentary cause, in the wake of the execution of king Charles I. The English poet says: "No man who knows ought, can be so stupid to deny that all men naturally were borne free, being the image and resemblance of God himself ... born to command and not to obey: and that they liv'd so".
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, one of which stands out far more than the others: "We hold these truths to be sacred and un-deniable..." became "We hold these truths to be self-evident."
The second paragraph of the United States Declaration of Independence starts: "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."
The Virginia Declaration of Rights, chiefly authored by George Mason and approved by the Virginia Convention on June 12, 1776, contains the wording: "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.
The Massachusetts Constitution, chiefly authored by John Adams in 1780, contains in its Declaration of Rights the wording: "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.
The phrase "all men are created equal" has received criticism.
In the early 19th century, Senator John Randolph of Roanoke criticized the phrase, stating that it is "a falsehood, and a most pernicious falsehood, even though I find it in the Declaration of Independence". John C. Calhoun agreed, saying that there was "not a word of truth" in the phrase. In 1853 and in the context of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, Senator John Pettit, said that the phrase wasn't a "self-evident truth" but a "self-evident lie". These men were all either slave owners or supporters of slavery.
Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens also criticized the sentence in 1861 in his Cornerstone Speech, calling it a "false idea" and noting that the Confederate States were founded "upon exactly the opposite idea", specifically outlined as white supremacy and the position of African Americans as subordinate.
Howard Zinn and others have written that the phrase is sexist. Zinn says that the use of the word men, to the exclusion of women, indicated the women were "beyond consideration as worthy of inclusion" and "they were simply overlooked in any consideration of political rights, any notions of civic equality". However, others argue that in the 1700s, the word men was sometimes used to denote both genders. According to the Library of Congress, most people have interpreted "all men" to mean humanity and, within the context of the times, it is clear that "all men" was a euphemism for "humanity".
It has also been criticised on grounds of racism. Nikole Hannah-Jones wrote in The New York Times that "the white men who drafted those words did not believe them to be true for the hundreds of thousands of black people in their midst." Historian Nicholas Guyatt has criticized the "long exile of blacks and Indians from 'all men are created equal'" and historian John Hope Franklin also states that "Jefferson didn't mean it when he wrote that all men are created equal. We've never meant it. The truth is we're a bigoted people and always have been".
Richard M. Weaver, in one of the cornerstone works of traditional conservatism, Ideas Have Consequences (1948), paraphrased a 19th-century writer, stating that "no man was ever created free and no two men [were] ever created equal". He continued: "The comity of peoples in groups large or small rests not upon this chimerical notion of equality but upon fraternity, a concept which long antedates it in history because it goes immeasurably deeper in human sentiment. The ancient feeling of brotherhood carries obligations of which equality knows nothing. It calls for respect and protection, for brotherhood is status in family, and family is by nature hierarchical."
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The contradiction between the claim that "all men are created equal" and the existence of American slavery, including Thomas Jefferson himself owning slaves, 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 criticizing the slave trade. At that time many other members of Congress also owned slaves, which clearly factored into their decision to delete the controversial "anti-slavery" passage.
Jefferson argued many cases to free enslaved people. In Howell v. Netherland (April 1770), the most famous of these, Jefferson argued for the freedom of Samuel Howell, a mixed-race indentured servant, but was unsuccessful. In writing the declaration, Jefferson believed the phrase "all men are created equal" to be self-evident, and would ultimately resolve slavery. In 1776, abolitionist Thomas Day wrote: "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 phrase was further used by Martin Luther King Jr. in his 1963 I Have a Dream speech, emphasizing it as part of the "American dream" which he hoped would someday be fulfilled.
Responses to criticism
Senator Benjamin Wade defended the phrase in 1854, stating that all men are created equal in the sense that they are "equal in point of right" so "no man has a right to trample upon another". According to Abraham Lincoln, the founders didn't mean that "all were equal in color, size, intellect, moral developments, or social capacity" but rather that everyone was equal in having "certain inalienable rights, among which are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness".
Also in defense of the phrase, Stanford University historian Jack Rakove said that the founders were not referring to the equality of individuals but to the right to self-government enjoyed by all peoples. It was only later, in the decades following the Revolution, said Rakove, that the statement came to be interpreted in reference to personal liberties.
The Proclamation of Independence of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, written in 1945, uses the phrase "all men are created equal" and also mentions the U.S. Declaration of Independence in it.
The Rhodesia's Unilateral 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".
The sentiment of the phrase, although not the exact wording, is echoed in numerous subsequent declarations of rights, including the UN Declaration of Human rights, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, German's Basic Laws, the Constitution of Algeria, and many other constitutions.
The phrase often serves as the first, or one of the first, rights listed in enumerations of rights, as a framing for all subsequent rights. Since Declarations of rights are often applied to all people, as natural human rights, the phrase emphasizes that all rights listed after it apply equally to every person.
- Equality before the law
- French 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."
- Political equality
- Second-class citizen
- Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), article 1: "All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights..."
- Peterson, Merrill. Thomas Jefferson and the New Nation: A biography. p. 90. Oxford University Press, 1970.
- "Jefferson's "original Rough draught" of the Declaration of Independence". jeffersonpapers.princeton.edu.
- Jefferson, Thomas (2018), The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Volume 1: 1760 to 1776, Princeton University Press, p. 315, ISBN 978-0-691-18466-1
- See, e.g., Jack P. Greene, All Men Are Created Equal: Some Reflections on the Character of the American Revolution (1000. 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".
- Gregory (1845). "THE BOOKS OF THE MORALS OF ST. GREGORY THE POPE, OR AN EXPOSITION ON THE BOOK OF BLESSED JOB". Archive.org. Translated by Bliss, James; Marriott, Charles. J.H. Parker, Oxford. p. 533. Retrieved March 25, 2023.
- "Thomas de Aquino, Scriptum super Sententiis, lib. 2 d. 30-33". Corpus Thomisticum. Distinctio 32, Quaestio 2, Articulus 3. Retrieved March 25, 2023.
- Tierney, Brian (1982). Religion, law, and the growth of constitutional thought 1150-1650. Cambridge University Press. pp. 45–46, 57–58.
- 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.
Translated by Jefferson as follow:
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
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
- "103D CONGRESS : 2D SESSION : H. J. RES. 175" (PDF). U.S. Government Publishing Office.
- 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.
- "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
- BBC: Voices of the powerless – readings from original sources
- Schultz, David. The Encyclopedia of American Law. Facts On File, Incorporated.
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- 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 (1995), Founding the Republic, Bloomsbury Academic, pp. 74–75, ISBN 9780313292262
- The Massachusetts Constitution, Judicial Review and Slavery – The Quock Walker Case Archived 2009-12-04 at the Wayback Machine, Massachusetts Judicial Branch (2007).
- "Universal Declaration of Human Rights". The United Nations.
- 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.
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- "All Men are Created Equal". Library of Congress. Retrieved 2022-03-28.
- Hannah-Jones, Nikole (14 August 2019). "Our democracy's founding ideals were false when they were written. Black Americans have fought to make them true". The New York Times.
- Greene Bowman, Leslie (July 2016). "The Paradox of the Declaration of Independence". Aspen Institute.
- "On this July 4th, what does equality mean?". NPR.
- Guyatt, Nicholas (2016). Bind Us Apart How Enlightened Americans Invented Racial Segregation. Oxford University Press.
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- Weaver, Richard. Ideas Have Consequences. 41-42. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1971. ISBN 0-226-87678-0
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- Armitage, David (2007). The Declaration of Independence: A Global History. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. ISBN 978-0-674-02282-9.
- Bearn, Gordon C.F. Life Drawing: A Deleuzean Aesthetics of Existence. Fordham University Press.
- 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. ISBN 0-7923-0811-5.
- Oberle, Lora Polack (2002). The Declaration of Independence. Capstone Publishers. ISBN 978-0-7368-1095-1.
- Palley, Claire (1966). The Constitutional History and Law of Southern Rhodesia 1888–1965, with Special Reference to Imperial Control (First ed.). Oxford: Clarendon Press. OCLC 406157.
- Tierney, Brian (1982). Religion, Law, and the Growth of Constitutional Thought, 1150-1650. Cambridge University Press.
- Zinn, Howard (2015). A People's History of the United States. Harper Collins. ISBN 9780062466679.
- Bearn, Gordon C.F. Life Drawing: A Deleuzean Aesthetics of Existence. Fordham University Press.
- Maier, Pauline (1999-06-01). "The Strange History of "All Men Are Created Equal"". Washington & Lee Law Review. 56 (3): 873.