While “all men are created equal” seemed to apply only to white property-owning males at the time of the Declaration of Independence, we can see it as a living document that is now interpreted to include all humankind among “all men.”
To understand the meaning of “all men are created equal,” it is necessary to examine how the phrase “all men” has been treated in society and how it has evolved. While Jefferson originally meant only white, landowning males to be included in “all men,” the phrase is now understood to encompass all men regardless of race, gender, national origin, or sexual orientation. Though the phrase is now understood to encompass all men, further issues still require resolution.
Jefferson wrote: “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” (Declaration of Independence). The phrase “all men are created equal” has caused much scrutiny of Jefferson’s life due to his contradictory opinions and actions on slavery. Many argue that he must have believed that only white men who owned property were created equal, because Jefferson himself owned slaves. There have also been claims that he fathered children with one of his slaves.
This is a complex situation, because Jefferson was actively involved in legislation that he hoped would result in the abolition of slavery. In 1778, Jefferson drafted a Virginia law that prohibited the importation of enslaved Africans. In 1784, he proposed an ordinance that would ban slavery in the Northwest territories. Jefferson believed that the decision to emancipate slaves would have to be part of the democratic process. To Jefferson, it was contrary to the principles of the American Revolution for the federal government to enact abolition. Parsing Jefferson’s complicated opinions makes it difficult to interpret the original meaning of “all men are created equal.” Although some of his words and legislative actions leads us to conclude that he opposed to slavery, his actions in his personal life show him to be a supporter of slavery in practice –which would mean that he did not include all men in the phrase “all men are created equal.”
In Fredrick Douglass’ fiery 4th of July speech in 1852, he condemns this phrase because he doesn’t believe that it fully includes every man: “What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence? Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us?” His view was one that African Americans were not truly a part of the nation, because the principles that are “embodied” in the Declaration of Independence were not extended to them. At this point in time, African Americans were still enslaved and had virtually no rights. This surely meant that all men were not treated equally.
Many important civil rights leaders have used the phrase “all men are created equal” to demand equality for all. One of the many leaders who used this phrase in a famous speech was Martin Luther King. He used this phrase in his I Have A Dream speech (1963): “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’” He would argue that “all men are created equal” did not encompass African Americans. His speech took place before the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and it was still legal to discriminate on the basis of race. Dr. King would argue that this would present a challenge to “all men created equal,” because African Americans were not ensured the same rights and privileges as white Americans. President John F. Kennedy also used this phrase to demand equality in a speech entitled “For What We Fight”: “It was founded on the principle that all men are created equal, and that the rights of every man are diminished when the rights of one man are threatened.” He would agree with King in saying that in the 1960s, the phrase had still not yet encompassed African Americans, so it could not truly mean “all” men.
While “all men are created equal” seemed to apply only to white property-owning males at the time of the Declaration of Independence, we can see it as a living document that is now interpreted to include all humankind among “all men.” With this new understanding, there is still the question of whether we are living up to its universal standard of equality. For example, there are twenty-eight states in which it is not against the law to discriminate against a gay person in housing, employment, or retail (Green 2016). This begs the question: Are gay people not understood to be created equal? If all are equal, then it ought not be legal to discriminate against people based on sexual orientation. Another example of problematic legislation is the Missouri discrimination bill. This bill makes it more difficult to sue for discrimination pertaining to race, age, gender, or ability. This is problematic because it gives employers the opportunity to discriminate based on race, age, gender, or ability, and not be penalized for their actions. If all men are created equal, there should be protections put in place to ensure that no human being in subject to discrimination.
Throughout American history, there has been heated debate concerning the phrase, “all men are created equal.” Jefferson originally meant for this phrase to only encompass white, landowning males, but it has come to include all men. This change has not been easy and it has not been quick – it has taken hundreds of years and many leaders, but slowly but surely the phrase has come to encompass all men. Because of this change, all men can now strive to enjoy their rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Mackinlee Rogers is a junior studying Political Science and Sociology at the University of Missouri. She currently works as an intern at the state capitol in Jefferson City, Missouri.
Green, Emma. 2016. “Can States Protect LGBT Rights Without Compromising Religious Freedom?” The Atlantic, 6 Jan. 2016, www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/01/lgbt-discrimination-protection-states-religion/422730/.
“Thomas Jefferson and Slavery.” Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, Thomas Jefferson Foundation, www.monticello.org/site/plantation-and-slavery/thomas-jefferson-and-slavery.