The Declaration of Independence made a bold assertion about human nature and natural rights. The central claim that “all men are created equal” had profound implications for the American regime of liberty. The “self-evident truth” of human equality meant that humans had equal natural rights, equally gave their consent to create a republican government, had equal dignity, and were equal under the law.
Throughout history, most societies were either monarchies, aristocracies, or despotisms. In those societies, leaders and elite social classes (or those of a certain ethnicity or religion) had certain rights and privileges that common people did not have. These societies were characterized by inequality.
The Enlightenment and ideas of John Locke significantly influenced the founders’ belief that all humans were created equal and had equal natural rights. The Declaration stated, “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.” The nature of the political regime was then shaped by this idea of natural human equality.
Again, influenced by Locke, the Declaration stated that all were equally free and independent to give their consent to create a free, representative government. The Declaration stated, “That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” This was the basis of social contract or social compact theory. It created an equal citizenry and self-governance in a republic.
The citizens in the republican government enjoyed equality under the Constitution. The Constitution created an equal rule of law for all in which they could enjoy their liberties. It equally protected the individual rights of all citizens and guaranteed due process. The Fifth Amendment to the Constitution reads, “No person shall be…deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” The Constitution banned titles of nobility and aristocratic privileges showing that it was a republican constitution not one that supported oligarchy, or rule by the few.
The principle of equality protected the liberties of all citizens to create a just society. All citizens enjoyed equal political liberty by giving their consent to representative government at all levels and by participating in government. All possessed freedom of conscience regarding their religious beliefs and worship. They also had economic equality. This understanding of equality did not mean that all people had the same amount of income or property, but that they had property rights and ought to have equal opportunity to pursue their happiness and keep the fruits of their labor in a free society. During the 1858 Lincoln-Douglas debates, Lincoln explained that the idea, “You work and toil and earn bread, and I’ll eat it,” is the “tyrannical principle” of monarchy and slavery.
Human beings had the same natural rights and enjoyed equality under the law in the political regime, but they were unequal in some important and obvious ways. The founders understood that human beings can never be perfectly equal in society because of the differences among individuals. Humans are unequal in physical strength, intelligence, talents, abilities, and character. Thus, individuals have different faculties, abilities, and virtues to make use of in pursuing their happiness. These differences result in social inequalities especially in terms of how much wealth a person might earn or some advantages in opportunities. Republican government must guard against allowing natural inequalities to create the conditions under which oligarchy and tyranny rule, but it can never create a utopian society of perfect equality.
For the founders, human equality was an axiomatic principle that was universally true for all people at all times. However, the principle was increasingly challenged by the middle of the nineteenth century. Senator John C. Calhoun called the equality principle an “utterly false view of the subordinate relation of the black to the white race” and the idea of equality of the races “an error.” In the infamous Dred Scott v. Sanford (1857) decision, Chief Justice Roger Taney opined that, “it is too clear for dispute that the enslaved African race were not intended to be included,” in the Declaration of Independence. In his 1858 debates with Lincoln, Senator Stephen Douglas stated, “I hold that the signers of the Declaration of Independence had no reference to negroes at all when they declared all men to be created equal.” In 1861, the vice-president of the Confederacy, Alexander Stephens, said that the “corner-stone [of the Confederate States of America] rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man.”
Many abolitionists and statesmen, including Frederick Douglass and Lincoln, took exception to the arguments of the opponents of black equality and inclusion in the Declaration of Independence. Their repeated claims that blacks were equal human beings endowed with equal natural rights was a significant demand for racial egalitarianism.
The equality principle continued to influence American thinking about their republican regime. While Lincoln continued to believe in the self-evident truth of the Declaration, he conceded that it was being fundamentally challenged before and during the Civil War. Lincoln was a student of ancient Greek mathematician Euclid and used the language of a proposition in the Gettysburg Address. The proposition of human equality was either true or false, and he believed in its truth and that it could be proven. “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.”
In 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. He opened the speech by stating, “Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation.” Using the biblical language of the Gettysburg Address, King rhetorically appealed to the liberty and equality of the Emancipation Proclamation and Declaration of Independence. He referred to the equality principle of the Declaration of Independence as a “promissory note” because it had been unfulfilled for black Americans. “When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men – yes, black men as well as white men – would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” King had not given up on the American ideal of equality. Black Americans attended the March on Washington and demonstrated peacefully in places like Birmingham to make that promise a reality.
The principle of equality has powerfully stood at the core of the American regime for more than two centuries. The challenges and debates over the principle have animated American deliberations about their national character of their free government and free society throughout that time and will continue to do so.
Tony Williams is a Senior Fellow at the Bill of Rights Institute and is the author of six books including Washington and Hamilton: The Alliance that Forged America with Stephen Knott. Williams is currently writing a book on the Declaration of Independence.
Podcast by Maureen Quinn