All men are created equal
The quotation "All men are created equal" has been called an "immortal declaration", and "perhaps" the single phrase of the United States Revolutionary period with the greatest "continuing importance". Thomas Jefferson
Thomas Jefferson
Thomas Jefferson was the principal author of the United States Declaration of Independence and the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom , the third President of the United States and founder of the University of Virginia...

 first used the phrase in the Declaration of Independence
United States Declaration of Independence
The Declaration of Independence was a statement adopted by the Continental Congress on July 4, 1776, which announced that the thirteen American colonies then at war with Great Britain regarded themselves as independent states, and no longer a part of the British Empire. John Adams put forth a...

 as a rebuttal to the going political theory of the day: the Divine Right of Kings
Divine Right of Kings
The divine right of kings or divine-right theory of kingship is a political and religious doctrine of royal and political legitimacy. It asserts that a monarch is subject to no earthly authority, deriving his right to rule directly from the will of God...

. It was thereafter quoted or 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
Benjamin Franklin
Dr. Benjamin Franklin was one of the Founding Fathers of the United States. A noted polymath, Franklin was a leading author, printer, political theorist, politician, postmaster, scientist, musician, inventor, satirist, civic activist, statesman, and diplomat...


Origin of Jefferson's use of the phrase

Jefferson may have also borrowed the expression from an Italian friend and neighbor, Philip Mazzei
Philip Mazzei
Philip Mazzei was an Italian physician and a promoter of liberty. He was a close friend of Thomas Jefferson and acted as an agent to purchase arms for Virginia during the American Revolutionary War.-Biography :...

, as noted by Joint Resolution 175 of the 103rd Congress
103rd United States Congress
- House of Representatives :- Leadership :- Senate :* President: Dan Quayle , until January 20, 1993** Al Gore , from January 20, 1993* President pro tempore: Robert Byrd - Majority leadership :* Majority Leader: George Mitchell...

 as well as by John F. Kennedy
John F. Kennedy
John Fitzgerald "Jack" Kennedy , often referred to by his initials JFK, was the 35th President of the United States, serving from 1961 until his assassination in 1963....

 in "A Nation Of Immigrants."

The opening of the United States Declaration of Independence
United States Declaration of Independence
The Declaration of Independence was a statement adopted by the Continental Congress on July 4, 1776, which announced that the thirteen American colonies then at war with Great Britain regarded themselves as independent states, and no longer a part of the British Empire. John Adams put forth a...

, written by Thomas Jefferson in 1776, states as follows:
In 1776 the Second Continental Congress asked Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Robert Livingston, and Roger Sherman to write the Declaration of Independence. The five men voted to have Thomas Jefferson write the document. After Jefferson finished he gave the document to Franklin to proof. Franklin suggested minor changes, but 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 same concept appears in the Massachusetts Constitution
Massachusetts Constitution
The Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts is the fundamental governing document of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, one of the 50 individual state governments that make up the United States of America. It was drafted by John Adams, Samuel Adams, and James Bowdoin during the...

 of 1780, which was written mostly by John Adams
John Adams
John Adams was an American lawyer, statesman, diplomat and political theorist. A leading champion of independence in 1776, he was the second President of the United States...

. The Declaration of Rights of the Inhabitants of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts which opens that constitution states:
The plaintiffs in the cases of Brom and Bett v. John Ashley
Mum Bett
Bett sought the counsel of Theodore Sedgwick, an abolition-minded lawyer, to help her sue for freedom in court. She told him, "I heard that paper read yesterday, that says, all men are created equal, and that every man has a right to freedom...

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".

These statements illustrated the idea of natural rights, a philosophical concept borrowed from the Enlightenment. Indeed, many of the ideas in the Declaration were taken from the English
England is a country that is part of the United Kingdom. It shares land borders with Scotland to the north and Wales to the west; the Irish Sea is to the north west, the Celtic Sea to the south west, with the North Sea to the east and the English Channel to the south separating it from continental...

 political philosopher
Political philosophy
Political philosophy is the study of such topics as liberty, justice, property, rights, law, and the enforcement of a legal code by authority: what they are, why they are needed, what, if anything, makes a government legitimate, what rights and freedoms it should protect and why, what form it...

 John Locke
John Locke
John Locke FRS , widely known as the Father of Liberalism, was an English philosopher and physician regarded as one of the most influential of Enlightenment thinkers. Considered one of the first of the British empiricists, following the tradition of Francis Bacon, he is equally important to social...

, himself a proponent of liberalism
Liberalism is the belief in the importance of liberty and equal rights. Liberals espouse a wide array of views depending on their understanding of these principles, but generally, liberals support ideas such as constitutionalism, liberal democracy, free and fair elections, human rights,...

. Locke, however, referred to "life
Life is a characteristic that distinguishes objects that have signaling and self-sustaining processes from those that do not, either because such functions have ceased , or else because they lack such functions and are classified as inanimate...

, liberty
Liberty is a moral and political principle, or Right, that identifies the condition in which human beings are able to govern themselves, to behave according to their own free will, and take responsibility for their actions...

 and property
Estate (law)
An estate is the net worth of a person at any point in time. It is the sum of a person's assets - legal rights, interests and entitlements to property of any kind - less all liabilities at that time. The issue is of special legal significance on a question of bankruptcy and death of the person...

" rather than the "pursuit of happiness," as Jefferson reformulated the idea in the Declaration.

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. Congress, having made a few changes in wording, deleted nearly a fourth of the draft before publication, removing a passage critical of the slave trade, and many members of Congress, Jefferson included, owned slaves. In 1776, abolitionist Thomas Day
Thomas Day
Thomas Day was a British author and abolitionist. He was well-known for the children's book The History of Sandford and Merton which emphasized Rousseauvian educational ideals.-Life and works:...

 responding to the hypocrisy in the Declaration 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.

Applications in American history

Declaring the equality of all men did not prevent the United States from continuing the widespread practice of slavery
Slavery is a system under which people are treated as property to be bought and sold, and are forced to work. Slaves can be held against their will from the time of their capture, purchase or birth, and deprived of the right to leave, to refuse to work, or to demand compensation...

, although the phrase was frequently raised by abolitionists in anti-slavery arguments. President Abraham Lincoln
Abraham Lincoln
Abraham Lincoln was the 16th President of the United States, serving from March 1861 until his assassination in April 1865. He successfully led his country through a great constitutional, military and moral crisis – the American Civil War – preserving the Union, while ending slavery, and...

 relied on the Declaration of Independence when making the case that slavery went against the deepest commitments of the American nation. Though he did so throughout the 1850s and into his presidency, the most famous example can be found in the Gettysburg Address
Gettysburg Address
The Gettysburg Address is a speech by U.S. President Abraham Lincoln and is one of the most well-known speeches in United States history. It was delivered by Lincoln during the American Civil War, on the afternoon of Thursday, November 19, 1863, at the dedication of the Soldiers' National Cemetery...

When Elizabeth Cady Stanton
Elizabeth Cady Stanton
Elizabeth Cady Stanton was an American social activist, abolitionist, and leading figure of the early woman's movement...

 and others convened at the Seneca Falls Convention
Seneca Falls Convention
The Seneca Falls Convention was an early and influential women's rights convention held in Seneca Falls, New York, July 19–20, 1848. It was organized by local New York women upon the occasion of a visit by Boston-based Lucretia Mott, a Quaker famous for her speaking ability, a skill rarely...

 held in Seneca Falls
Seneca Falls (village), New York
Seneca Falls is a village in Seneca County, New York, United States. The population was 6,861 at the 2000 census. The village is in the Town of Seneca Falls, east of Geneva, New York. On March 16, 2010, village residents voted to dissolve the village, a move that would take effect at the end of 2011...

, New York
New York
New York is a state in the Northeastern region of the United States. It is the nation's third most populous state. New York is bordered by New Jersey and Pennsylvania to the south, and by Connecticut, Massachusetts and Vermont to the east...

 in July 1848, they drafted and signed a document titled the Declaration of Sentiments
Declaration of Sentiments
The Declaration of Sentiments, also known as the Declaration of Rights and Sentiments, is a document signed in 1848 by 68 women and 32 men, 100 out of some 300 attendees at the first women's rights convention, in Seneca Falls, New York, now known as the Seneca Falls Convention...

. The opening sentence alludes to this phrase:
The phrase was also quoted by Martin Luther King, Jr.
Martin Luther King, Jr.
Martin Luther King, Jr. was an American clergyman, activist, and prominent leader in the African-American Civil Rights Movement. He is best known for being an iconic figure in the advancement of civil rights in the United States and around the world, using nonviolent methods following the...

 in his famous I Have a Dream
I Have a Dream
"I Have a Dream" is a 17-minute public speech by Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered on August 28, 1963, in which he called for racial equality and an end to discrimination...

 speech, as the "creed" of the United States:

Hobbesian origin

Thomas Hobbes
Thomas Hobbes
Thomas Hobbes of Malmesbury , in some older texts Thomas Hobbs of Malmsbury, was an English philosopher, best known today for his work on political philosophy...

 also proposed an early variant of equality among men in his treatise The Leviathan
Leviathan (book)
Leviathan or The Matter, Forme and Power of a Common Wealth Ecclesiasticall and Civil — commonly called simply Leviathan — is a book written by Thomas Hobbes and published in 1651. Its name derives from the biblical Leviathan...

In the above passage Hobbes proposes a rough equivalence among men, based on the idea that the strongest man is not so strong that he is protected from the strength of the weakest and is thus not strong enough to be considered greater. As is clear from the text, Hobbes points to a factual state of affairs. His main point is exemplified by the comparison of the biblical characters David and Goliath. While Goliath is bigger and stronger physically, David's own strong points (wit in finding a solution to an immediate threat, and accuracy in wielding his weapon) allowed David to use his own superior intelligence in analyzing the situation, thus arriving at a superior battle strategy, allowing him to defeat Goliath, despite being at a physical disadvantage. Equal does not mean identical. Rather, equality refers to the sum of a man's various strengths and weaknesses being of the same cumulative advantage and disadvantage in life. We all have individual strengths, and obvious differences in specific capabilities, yet it is self-evident that we all possess an equal amount of overall power and ability.
Human misguidance perpetuates the illusion that the most visually obvious individual traits are the most significant traits overall. A society under the consensus that Goliath and David are not equal in level of cumulative ability and power, is a society which fails to see the whole picture.

See also

  • Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen
    Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen
    The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen is a fundamental document of the French Revolution, defining the individual and collective rights of all the estates of the realm as universal. Influenced by the doctrine of "natural right", the rights of man are held to be universal: valid...

     (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
    Is-ought problem
    The is–ought problem in meta-ethics as articulated by Scottish philosopher and historian, David Hume , is that many writers make claims about what ought to be on the basis of statements about what is...

  • John Ball
    John Ball (priest)
    John Ball was an English Lollard priest who took a prominent part in the Peasants' Revolt of 1381. In that year, Ball gave a sermon in which he asked the rhetorical question, "When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?".-Biography:Little is known of Ball's early years. He lived in...

     (1381), "When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the nobleman?"
  • Second-class citizen
    Second-class citizen
    Second-class citizen is an informal term used to describe a person who is systematically discriminated against within a state or other political jurisdiction, despite their nominal status as a citizen or legal resident there...

  • Universal Declaration of Human Rights
    Universal Declaration of Human Rights
    The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a declaration adopted by the United Nations General Assembly . The Declaration arose directly from the experience of the Second World War and represents the first global expression of rights to which all human beings are inherently entitled...

     (1948), article 1: "All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights..."
  • Equality before the law
    Equality before the law
    Equality before the law or equality under the law or legal egalitarianism is the principle under which each individual is subject to the same laws....

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