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 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]

Origin of Thomas Jefferson’s use of the phrase

Thomas Jefferson, at the age of 33, 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.[5][6]

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, and 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 second paragraph of the United States Declaration of Independencestarts 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;[7]

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.[8]

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.[9]

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.[10]

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.[11] 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”.[12]

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.[13]

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 critical of 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.[14] In 1776,abolitionist Thomas Day responding to the hypocrisy in the Declaration wrote, though the first draft stated ” All free men are created equal”:

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.[14]

Legacy

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“.[15][16][17]

See also

References

  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. Jump up^ 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. Jump up^ Peterson, Merrill. Thomas Jefferson and the New Nation: A biography. p. 90. Oxford University Press, 1970.
  4. Jump up^ 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. Jump up^ 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. http://frwebgate.access.gpo.gov/cgi-bin/getdoc.cgi?dbname=103_cong_bills&docid=f:hj175eh.pdf
  6. Jump up^ “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
  7. Jump up^ s:United States Declaration of Independence
  8. Jump up^ Virginia Declaration of Rights
  9. Jump up^ Blumrosen, Alfred W. and Ruth G., Slave Nation: How Slavery United the Colonies and Sparked the American Revolution, Sourcebooks, 2005, pp. 125–26.
  10. Jump up^ Article I, Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts (1780)
  11. Jump up^ John J. Patrick, Founding the Republic, pp. 74–75
  12. Jump up^ The Massachusetts Constitution, Judicial Review and Slavery – The Quock Walker Case, Massachusetts Judicial Branch (2007).
  13. Jump up^ 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. – http://www.un.org/en/documents/udhr/
  14. ^ Jump up to: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
  15. Jump up^ 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.
  16. Jump up^ Hillier, Tim (1998). Sourcebook on Public International Law (First ed.). London & Sydney: Cavendish Publishing. p. 207.ISBN 1-85941-050-2.
  17. Jump up^ 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

 

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