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The quotation "All men are created equal" is arguably the best-known phrase in any of America's political documents.[1][2] Thomas Jefferson first used the phrase in the Declaration of Independence as a rebuttal to the going political theory of the day: the Divine Right of Kings. It was thereafter quoted or incorporated into speeches by a wide array of substantial figures in American political and social life.


Origin of Jefferson's use of the phrase

Line containing Jefferson's use of the phrase "all men are created equal", in the Declaration of Independence.

Jefferson borrowed the expression from an Italian friend and neighbor, Philip Mazzei,[3] as noted by Joint Resolution 175 of the 103rd Congress as well as John F. Kennedy in "A Nation Of Immigrants."[4][5]

The opening of the United States Declaration of Independence written by Thomas Jefferson in 1776, states 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;[6]

The same concept appears in the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780, which was written mostly by John Adams.[7] The Declaration of Rights of the Inhabitants of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts which opens that constitution states:

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.[8]

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.[9] The latter case resulted in a a "sweeping declaration . . . that the institution of slavery was incompatible with the principles of liberty and legal equality articulated in the new Massachusetts Constitution".[10]

These statements illustrated the idea of natural rights, a philosophical concept of the Enlightenment and many of the ideas in the Declaration were borrowed from the English liberal political philosopher John Locke. Locke, however, referred to "life, liberty and Property" rather than the pursuit of happiness.[11]

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.

Applications in American history

Declaring the equality of all men did not prevent the United States from continuing the widespread practice of slavery, although the phrase was frequently raised by abolitionists in anti-slavery arguments. President Abraham Lincoln 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:

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.[12]

When Elizabeth Cady Stanton and others convened at the Seneca Falls Convention held in Seneca Falls, New York in July 1848, they drafted and signed a document titled the Declaration of Sentiments. The opening sentence alludes to this phrase:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men and women are created equal.[13]

The phrase was also quoted by Martin Luther King, Jr. in his famous I Have a Dream speech, as the "creed" of the United States:

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.'

Hobbesian Origin

In fact Thomas Hobbes proposed an early version of equality among men in his treatise The Leviathan:

Nature hath made men so equal in the faculties of body and mind as that, though there be found one man sometimes manifestly stronger in body or of quicker mind than another, yet when all is reckoned together the difference between man and man is not so considerable as that one man can thereupon claim to himself any benefit to which another may not pretend as well as he. For as to the strength of body, the weakest has strength enough to kill the strongest, either by secret machination or by confederacy with others that are in the same danger with himself.

And as to the faculties of the mind, setting aside the arts grounded upon words, and especially that skill of proceeding upon general and infallible rules, called science, which very few have and but in few things, as being not a native faculty born with us, nor attained, as prudence, while we look after somewhat else, I find yet a greater equality amongst men than that of strength. For prudence is but experience, which equal time equally bestows on all men in those things they equally apply themselves unto.

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.

See also


  1. ^ See, e.g., Jack P. Greene, All Men Are Created Equal: Some Reflections on the Character of the American Revolution (1976). 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. ^ 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.
    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
  4. ^ 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. ^ "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
  6. ^ s:United States Declaration of Independence
  7. ^ Donald Lutz, A companion to the American Revolution, p. 276,  
  8. ^ Article I, Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts (1780)
  9. ^ John J. Patrick, Founding the Republic, pp. 74–75,  
  10. ^ The Massachusetts Constitution, Judicial Review and Slavery — The Quock Walker Case, Massachusetts Judicial Branch (2007).
  11. ^ Gottfried Dietze, In defense of property, p. 31,  
  12. ^ s:Gettysburg Address
  13. ^ s:Declaration of Sentiments

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