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All men are created equal

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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."[1][2] 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.[3]

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  • ✪ All men are created equal | US History | Khan Academy
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  • ✪ What Jefferson meant when he wrote "All man created equal"


Man 1: The second paragraph of the declaration is one of the most amazing set of phrases ever written. It is the creed of what makes America and now, what makes the aspirations of many people around the world. Let's just read that first sentence of the second paragraph, which is just awesome. It's, "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." Man 2: "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." Let's start even with the word "we". Who's "we"? "We", it says, is the American colonies, now gathering as the United States of America, but they're basically white males. Everybody at that convention is a white male, most of them landowners. So, what the arc of American history shows is that word "we" begins, over the course of decades and then centuries, to include more and more people. Eventually, it includes freed slaves, eventually it includes women, but that's a narrative of American history, is who are we that have these truths as self-evident, that we're all equal? Now, it's also interesting, the phrase "self-evident". This is something that comes from the rationality of the scientific era we were in. This is an age right after Isaac Newton has made everything in the universe rational through scientific laws and it also comes from some of the philosophers, especially David Hume, that there are just certain things that are self-evident. That's an important concept, that they're not appealing to anybody else to say, "What are these truths?" They're saying, "This is just our rationality tells us "this is true," but then they say, "all men are created equal." Now, they say men. Back then, men was supposed to be a phrase that was more inclusive than just males. Man 2: For man. Man 1: Right, it's like mankind, to some extent, but then again, at least Jefferson, he owned slaves. Women, they weren't necessarily given the right to vote. Even though they mean "man" sort of like mankind, they also really generally mean men, at this point. Once again, this is where the American narrative starts. Fortunately, that phrase gets expanded over time as to what they mean. Man 2: Right. Man 1: Look at the phrase "created equal". What does that really mean? First of all, it doesn't mean that people are always equal. At a certain point in life, Jefferson owns a whole lot of property and Franklin is quite rich as a printer and different people have different statuses in life, but they're saying that in a fundamental, political way, we all start off created equal. We have certain rights that you just can't take away from us whether we're rich or poor or whatever. Those unalienable rights are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness. Man 2: I'm guessing it's also a ding at the King, because royalty ... One underlying assumption is that it's inherited and that you are created better off. Man 1: Right and Thomas Paine, who is a pamphleteer, has just written this document Common Sense and that's helped inspire everybody. At the heart of the document Common Sense is that there's no divine right of kings. Divine right of kings was a British concept, which meant God made certain people more equal or better than others, and the king, by divine right, had these powers and we're saying, "No, the kings don't "have any more powers." Ben Franklin was very much of that way, which was he hated the notion of aristocracy, that some people were born noble and some people were born aristocratic and some people were born royal and whatever, but think about it for a moment. What was Thomas Jefferson thinking? A guy who owns a lot of slaves, what was he thinking when he writes this amazing phrase, "all men are created equal"? I think he was very conflicted. Here's a guy who did not end up even freeing most of his slaves in his lifetime and yet, he could write these inspiring words. If you read about Jefferson, you know that was the fundamental conflict and it's a conflict that we, as a nation, have been wrestling with. Man 2: As a slaveowner, he also knew them very well. He knew them as human beings, perhaps. Man 1: Right, well he fathered children with one of the slaves. Ben Franklin is interesting, because early on in life, he had two household slaves, who he didn't really treat as slaves, but they were his household servants and he had allowed the advertising of slavery in the Pennsylvania Gazette, the newspaper that he published, but he realized, after he writes these words, "created equal", he realizes how abhorrent that is, to his own notions, that people are created equal. Of course, he's by then, freed his slaves, but becomes a president of the Society for the Abolition of Slavery in Pennsylvania, as a way of trying to make up for the fact that he'd erred, he had been wrong when he was young, to tolerate the institution of slavery and he becomes an abolitionist. Of course, John Adams, from the very beginning, was an abolitionist. Man 2: This is important for people to realize. When you take an American history class, it seems like obviously everything comes to a head leading up the Civil War, but this was already starting to become an issue, a moral issue, a philosophical issue, even at the founding of the country. Man 1: And a political issue, as well, because if you want Jefferson and you want Virginia in, the reason John Adams ... He was a great abolitionist, but there were no plantations. There was no cotton being grown in Massachusetts, but if you were a cotton farmer or a plantation owner in Virginia, you tended to own slaves and it becomes a great political issue where the slaveholding states have to be brought into this union. We see that conflict when the constitution is written 11 years later. They're still having this conflict on what do we do about slavery? Man 2: Yeah and it will continue for another 70-something years. Man 1: Yeah, if you want to say that it was totally resolved by the Civil War and there will be some who will say that that was the original stain on this unbelievably beautiful phrase, which is that "all men are created equal." Man 2: Yeah, very cool.


Origin of Thomas Jefferson's use of the phrase

Thomas Jefferson, through his friendship with 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,[4] as noted by Joint Resolution 175 of the 103rd Congress as well as by John F. Kennedy in A Nation of Immigrants.[6][7]

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 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,;[8]

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.[9]

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.[10]

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:

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.[11]

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.[12] 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".[13]

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.[15]

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 criticizing 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. Jefferson, an abolitionist at heart, believed adding such a passage would dissolve the independence movement. Jefferson, decades before the Declaration of Independence, argued in court for the abolition of a slave. The court dismissed the case outright. In writing the declaration, Jefferson believed the phrase "all men are created equal" to be self-evident, and would ultimately resolve slavery. [16] 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.[16]


The phrase "all men are created equal" has received criticism from elitists and traditional conservatives. For instance, Richard M. Weaver writing in one of the cornerstone works of traditional conservatism, Ideas Have Consequences (1948), paraphrased a 19th-century writer in writing that "no man was ever created free and no two men [were] ever created equal". He continues:

The comity of peoples in groups large or small rests not upon this chemerical 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.[17]


The Vietnamese proclamation of independence, written in 1945, uses the phrase "all men are created equal" and mentions the U.S. Declaration of Independence in it as well.

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".[18][19][20]

See also


  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'".
  2. ^ 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".
  3. ^ Peterson, Merrill. Thomas Jefferson and the New Nation: A biography. p. 90. Oxford University Press, 1970.
  4. ^ 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

    He may also have influenced Thomas Paine's Common Sense.

    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

  5. ^ "103D CONGRESS : 2D SESSION : H. J. RES. 175" (PDF). U.S. Government Publishing Office.
  6. ^ 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.[5]
  7. ^ "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
  8. ^ s:United States Declaration of Independence
  9. ^ Virginia Declaration of Rights
  10. ^ Blumrosen, Alfred W. and Ruth G., Slave Nation: How Slavery United the Colonies and Sparked the American Revolution, Sourcebooks, 2005, pp. 125–26.
  11. ^ Article I, Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts (1780)
  12. ^ John J. Patrick, Founding the Republic, pp. 74–75
  13. ^ The Massachusetts Constitution, Judicial Review and Slavery – The Quock Walker Case, Massachusetts Judicial Branch (2007).
  14. ^ "Universal Declaration of Human Rights". The United Nations.
  15. ^ 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.[14]
  16. ^ a b Armitage, David. The Declaration Of Independence: A Global History. 76–77. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2007. ISBN 978-0-674-02282-9
  17. ^ Weaver, Richard. Ideas Have Consequences. 41-42. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1971. ISBN 0-226-87678-0
  18. ^ 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.
  19. ^ Hillier, Tim (1998). Sourcebook on Public International Law (First ed.). London & Sydney: Cavendish Publishing. p. 207. ISBN 1-85941-050-2.
  20. ^ 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.

External links

This page was last edited on 30 December 2018, at 08:49
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