Thomas Jefferson, The Declaration of Independence, and “Equality”

This article is an exercise in definition, and when discussing definitions and terms, it is always helpful to begin by what we do not mean. The phrase that I want to examine is Equality, particularly when we state “that all men are created equal.”  In his brilliant introductory textbook Liberty, Order, and Justice, Dr. James McClellan cited a certain “critical Englishmen who read the Declaration” and asked:

“In what way are [all men] created equal? … Is it in size, strength, understanding, figure, moral or civil accomplishments, or situation of life?”  The Americans, he asserted, “have introduced their self-evident truth, either through ignorance, or by design, with a self-evident falsehood, since I will defy any American rebel, or any of their patriotic retainers here in England, to point out to me any two men throughout the whole world of whom it may with truth be said, that they are equal.”[1]

The term equality is pivotal to how Americans view their rights and liberties even to 2022.  Still, it begs the question: since every man is clearly unequal in size, strength, intelligence, and situation in life, then how exactly are they equal?  Those on the political right traditionally argue that Jefferson – whom Tocqueville called “the greatest democrat who has yet issued from within the American democracy”[4] – had intended to assert the equal dignity of British citizens on both sides of the Atlantic.  Conservatives tend to claim that the American Revolution was not akin to a radical revolution (e.g. the Russian or French Revolutions) in that the “revolutionaries” were not radicals attempting to upend the existing order and remake society based upon abstract ideals.[5]  Liberals and Progressives may argue that liberty and equality are lofty and noble goals, but this promissory note in the Declaration of Independence is one that each generation of Americans has to fight for to maintain.[6]

Rather than radical revolutionaries and political abstractionists, in the main the signers of the Declaration of Independence saw themselves as subjects of the British crown who had been denied equal representation in their own governing affairs.  They believed themselves to be Englishmen on the far side of an ocean who had been stripped of equal rights under British common law, and so were simply reasserting their inherited constitutional rights.  According to Kendall and Carey, Abraham Lincoln rediscovered this language of equality “fourscore and seven years” after the adoption of the Declaration of Independence.[7]

Thomas Jefferson was a bit of an outlier among the Congress in that he was both a legislator and a philosopher, as well as a celebrated intellectual.  He was more intellectual than George Washington, for example, and was given to flights of philosophical speculation and was more prone to appeal to abstract Natural Rights, as opposed to the traditional Natural Law or simply the inherited rights of English subjects.  And for this reason, Jefferson intended a broader reading of the phrase “all men are created equal” than several other members of the Continental Congress would allow for.

In support of this assertion, one would need only to compare the early drafts of the Declaration of Independence with the document signed on July 4, 1776.  In the earlier drafts, Jefferson attempted to include a blanket denunciation of slavery, for example (although Jefferson owned slaves all his life).  Several members of the Continental Congress objected to such strong language for fear of losing the support of South Carolina and Georgia.  And again, while there were several British Loyalists present at the Congress, the general tenor of the deliberations were in favor of reasserting British rights or even pushing for total separation from the mother country.  The military hostilities had already broken out in 1775, after all!

Still, what did Jefferson mean by the phrase regarding universal equality in the early paragraphs of the Declaration?  He most surely would have had a scintillating reply to Bentham’s sniggering derision, when the latter claimed that “’All men … are created equal.’  This surely is a new discovery; now, for the first time, we learn, that a child, at the moment of his birth, has the same quantity of natural power as the parent, the same quantity of political power as the magistrate.”[8]  Astute and learned Jefferson may have retorted that all men are indeed created equal, and while they may not yet exercise equal political participation, they may as men “assume among the Powers of the Earth, the separate and equal Station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them,”[9] allowing for the natural course of life and growth to have their sway. 

— JC

[1] McClellan, James. Liberty, Order, and Justice: An Introduction to the Constitutional Principles of American Government, 3rd ed. … 130.

[2] Declaration of Independence, (U.S. 1776), 2nd paragraph.

[3] Maier, Pauline. “The Strange History of all Men are Created Equal,” Washington and Lee Law Review 56, no. 3 (Summer, 1999): 875.  

[4] Yarbrough, Jean M. “Jefferson and Tocqueville,” Perspectives on Political Science 48, no. 4 (2019): 252-275.

[5] Daniel Chirot. You Say You Want a Revolution? Radical Idealism and Its Tragic Consequences. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2020.

[6] See King, Martin Luther. “I Have a Dream.”

[7] Basic Symbols of the American Political Tradition, 14.

[8] Quoted on Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power, 107.

[9] Preamble to the Declaration of Independence.

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