The long-running debate about “All men are created equal”

NEW YORK – Kevin Jennings is CEO of Lambda Legal, a prominent LGBTQ rights advocate. He sees part of his mission as fulfilling the sacred American principle: “All men are created equal.”

“Those words say to me, ‘Do better, America.’ And by that I mean that we’ve never been a country where people were really equal,” Jennings says. “It’s an aspiration to keep working towards and we’re not there yet.”

Ryan T. Anderson is President of the Conservative Ethics and Public Policy Center. He also believes that “all men are created equal”. For him, the words mean: “All have the same dignity, we all count equally, nobody is disposable, nobody is a second-class citizen.” At the same time, not everyone has the same right to marry – which he and other conservatives consider the legal union of a man and a man looking at woman.

“I don’t think human equality requires a redefinition of marriage,” he says.


Few words in American history are quoted as often as those from the preamble to the Declaration of Independence, published almost 250 years ago. And few are harder to define. The music and economics of All Men Are Created Equal make it both universal and elusive, adaptable to viewpoints – social, racial, economic – with little or no commonality otherwise. How we use them often depends less on how we came into this world and more on what kind of world we want to live in.

It’s as if “All men are created equal” leads us to ask, “And then what?”

“We say ‘All people are created equal,’ but does that mean we have to make everyone completely equal at all times, or does that mean everyone gets a fair chance?” said Michael Waldman, president of the Brennan Center for Justice. “Individualism is burned into this phrase, but also a broader, more egalitarian vision. There’s a lot in there.”

Thomas Jefferson helped perpetuate the phrase, but he did not invent it. The words predate the Declaration in some form by centuries and even predates the Virginia Declaration of Rights in 1776, which stated, “All men are by nature equally free and independent.” Peter Onuf, a professor emeritus at the University of Virginia, whose books include The Mind of Thomas Jefferson, notes that Jefferson himself did not claim to have said anything radically new, and wrote in 1825 that the explanation lacked “originality of principle or feeling.” ”


The declaration was an indictment of the British monarchy, but not a declaration of justice for all. For the slave-owning Jefferson, “and most of his patriots, enslaved people were property and therefore not included in these new polities, leaving their status unchanged,” says Onuf. He added that “this does not mean that he does not recognize his enslaved people as human beings, but that they can only enjoy elsewhere, in their own country, those universal, natural rights: emancipation and expatriation.”

Hannah Spahn, a professor at the John F. Kennedy Institute in Berlin and author of the forthcoming book Black Reason, White Feeling: The Jeffersonian Enlightenment in the African American Tradition, says a draft of the declaration made it clear that Jefferson “All men” were created equal, but not necessarily that all men were equal before the law. Spahn, like leading Revolutionary War scholars such as Jack Rakove, believes that “all men are created equal” originally referred less to individual equality and more to the right of a people as a whole to self-government.


After the statement was released, perceptions began to change. Black Americans were among the first to change them, notably New England-based minister Lemuel Haynes. Shortly after July Fourth, Haynes wrote Liberty Extended Further: Or Free Thoughts on the Illegality of Slave-Keeping, an essay first published in 1983 but seen as expressing the feelings of many in the black community, with his appeal , “to affirm that even an African has as good a right to his liberty as an Englishman.”

Spahn finds Haynes’ answer “philosophically innovative” because he isolated the passage with the famous sentence from the rest of the declaration and made it the expression of “timeless, universally binding norms”.

“He intentionally downplayed Jefferson’s original emphasis on issues of collective consent and consent,” she says.

The words have been endlessly adapted and reinterpreted since then. By feminists at the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention who declared: “We take these truths for granted; that all men and women are created equal.” From civil rights activists like Frederick Douglass to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who upheld the phrase as a sacred promise to black Americans in his “I Have a Dream” speech. By Abraham Lincoln, who referred to them in the Gettysburg Address and elsewhere, but on a narrower scale than King imagined a century later.


In Lincoln’s day, according to historian Eric Foner, “they made careful distinctions between natural, civil, political, and social rights. One might enjoy equality in one and not in the other.”

“Lincoln spoke of the equality of natural rights—life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” says Foner, whose books include the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery. “Therefore slavery is wrong and people have an equal right to the fruits of their labour. Political rights were determined by the majority and could be restricted by it.”

Words were completely denied. John C. Calhoun, the South Carolina Senator and staunch supporter of slavery, found “not a word of truth” in them when he attacked the phrase during an 1848 speech. Vice President Alexander H. Stephens of the Confederate States asserted this in 1861. “The Great Truth” is: “The negro is not equal to the white; that the submission of slavery to the superior race is its natural and normal state.”


The repeal of Roe v. Wade and other recent Supreme Court decisions has caused some activists to wonder if “all men are created equal” still means anything. Robin Marty, author of Handbook for a Post-Roe America, calls the phrase a “bromide” for those “who ignore how unequal our lives really are.”

Marty added that the repeal of abortion laws gave the unborn “greater protection than most,” a claim echoed in part by Roe opponents who said that “all men are created equal” includes the unborn.

The words are used for very different purposes among contemporary politicians and other public figures.

— President Donald Trump quoted them in October 2020 (“The divine truth our founders enshrined in the very fabric of our nation: that all men are created equal”) in a statement barring federal agencies from using “Critical Race Theory” to teach. President Joe Biden echoed the language of Seneca Falls (“We take these truths for granted that all men and women are created equal”) while praising unions last month when addressing an AFL-CIO meeting in Philadelphia.


— Morse Tan, dean of Liberty University, the evangelical school co-founded by Rev. Jerry Falwell Sr., says the words uphold a “classic, long-standing” Judeo-Christian notion: “The irreducible worth and worth that all men have for they (are) created in the image of God.” Noting Jefferson’s own religious skepticism, secular humanists fit his words and worldview into eighteenth-century Enlightenment thought, emphasizing human reason over faith.

– Conservative organizations from the Claremont Institute to the Heritage Center look to “all men are created equal” as evidence that affirmative action and other government programs against racism are unnecessary and contrary to the ideal of a “color blind” system.

Ibram X. Kendi, the award-winning author and director of the Center for Antiracist Research at Boston University, says the words can serve both “anti-racist” and “assimilatory” perspectives.


“The anti-racist idea suggests that all racial groups are biologically inherently equal. The assimilationist idea is that all racial groups are created equal, but it leaves open the idea that some racial groups are made inferior through upbringing, which means some racial groups are culturally or behaviorally inferior,” says Kendi, whose books Stamped from the Beginning” belongs to “How to be an anti-racist.”

“Being an anti-racist means recognizing that we are not just created equal or biologically equal. It’s about all racial groups being equal. And if there are differences between these equal racial groups, then that is the result of racist politics or structural racism and not the inferiority or superiority of one racial group.”

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https://www.local10.com/news/politics/2022/07/03/the-long-ongoing-debate-over-all-men-are-created-equal/ The long-running debate about “All men are created equal”

Sarah Y. Kim

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