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All Men Are Created Equal

By George Vos


“We hold these truths to be self–evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that amoung these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” (Jefferson 706).

Thomas Jefferson wrote these immortal words in the opening of “The Declaration of Independence.”  Jefferson’s “Declaration” made the United States the first nation on Earth founded upon an ideal; his words resonate through American history.  Abraham Lincoln used them in his “Gettysburg Address,” as did Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. in his “I Have a Dream” speech.  What did each man denote when he used the most important words in American history?  Did Jefferson’s concept of equality and inalienable rights in 1776 mean the same as Lincoln’s in 1863 or King’s in 1963?  To determine this we must ask what each man’s goal was and what he meant when he wrote or spoke of the rights of man.


Jefferson’s goal when he drafted the “Declaration of Independence” was to create a document for Congress to declare independence from Great Britain and explain the need for this to all Americans, as well as other European nations.  Starting with a statement on the rights of man and the obligations of government he drew from Enlightenment political theories, Jefferson set up his arguments for why America must separate from Britain.  He then moved to a prosecutorial indictment of King George III that Congress used to justify their actions (709).  What is best remembered today is the first part of the “Declaration”, where Jefferson wrote “all men are created equal,” and all men had rights to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” (706).  Was Jefferson’s intent to include all men in his “universal” rights or only those already free?  The “Declaration” is ambiguous on freedom.  It states all men are entitled to rights, but includes liberty as a right when only free men, not slaves, had that right.  This ambiguity reflects Jefferson’s position on slavery.  Jefferson opposed slavery, calling it “an execrable trade” (Fawn M. Brodie, Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History 121).  He charged that George III perpetuated slavery by blocking colonial efforts to end the slave trade.  The charge was deleted from the “Declaration”, over Jefferson’s protest, when some Congressional delegates objected (Joseph J. Ellis, American Sphinx 36).  However, Jefferson owned many African-American slaves.  He fathered children with his slaves and the children remained slaves despite his paternity.  The “Declaration” heralded our nation’s birth and shaped its beliefs but neither Jefferson, nor Congress, intended it to offer freedom to slaves. Jefferson’s God-given universal rights applied only to free men; it took another leader in a different national crisis to resolve the inconsistency in the meaning of his words.


Lincoln redefined Jefferson’s words in his “Gettysburg Address” to alter the course of the Civil War and give the North deeper reason to fight.  By the Fall of 1863 the United States had grown weary of the war’s carnage. When Lincoln was invited to deliver a speech at the commemoration of a cemetery and memorial on the Gettysburg battlefield he knew an audience of nearly 20,000 would attend; he saw it as an opportunity to bolster the nation’s sagging spirit.  While writing the address Lincoln drew from his favorite sources: ancient Greek speeches, the Bible, and, of course, Jefferson.  In Lincoln’s view, the Declaration of Independence was America’s statement of purpose, the document which controlled the intent of the Constitution.  Lincoln’s speech was brilliant in its brevity, changing the nation’s perception of the war and what the ideals of the Declaration meant in just ten sentences.  He used the biblical “four score and seven” to create a near-religious reference to the Founding Fathers and the birth of the nation, then added his twist to the meaning of Jefferson’s words by declaring our nation is “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” (Lincoln 460).  Lincoln’s words gave the lie to Constitutional tolerance of slavery and other legalisms that enabled it.  Lincoln tied the idea of equality to the soldier’s battlefield sacrifice when he asked all to “take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion” (461).  Lincoln’s primary goal in the “Gettysburg Address” was to win the ideological battle for the Civil War by fixing the Union’s cause to American’s belief in freedom.  He was victorious in this battle, because the meaning of the Civil War is, to most Americans, exactly what Lincoln wanted it to mean (Garry Wills, Lincoln at Gettysburg 38).  Early in 1861, as Lincoln struggled to halt the nation’s disintegration he said if not freeing a single slave would preserve the union, that is what he would do, but in 1862 he acted on his true beliefs by issuing the Emancipation Proclamation.  Lincoln concretized these beliefs for the nation at Gettysburg and made freedom and equality America’s moral imperative. The Civil War succeeded in freeing all Americans.  Tragically, the concept of equality was soon swept aside by prejudice and violence.  It remained meaningless for nearly a century until another leader captured America’s attention with his demand for justice.


The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. used Jefferson’s words in his “I Have a Dream” speech to make America understand that the time for equality was upon us, and bring about social change that Jefferson could scarcely have imagined (King 715).  In the summer of 1963 America’s attention was focused on the issue of civil rights for its black citizens. Earlier that year Americans witnessed shocking images on television, seeing civil rights marchers in Selma, Alabama brutally attacked by the local police with clubs, dogs and fire hoses.  In August, a civil rights march drew over 250,000 people to the Lincoln Memorial.  King wanted to use this nationally televised event to press home a call for immediate action.  King was a minister, so his speeches had the language and cadences of the pulpit; the most famous and uplifting section of this speech repeated the phrase “I Have a Dream” to envision America without discrimination and prejudice (King 717).  However, his demand to white America for equal rights was couched in down-to-earth terms. When King spoke of right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” he applied Lincoln’s more universal meaning, rather than Jefferson’s (715).  King created a simple yet powerful metaphor; he called the words a promissory note by which our nation had guaranteed equal rights to all (715).  He then used an even simpler metaphor that the United States had written a check for equal rights but it had repeatedly been returned for “insufficient funds” (716).   In effect, he told white Americans they had acted irresponsibly; the failure to give equal rights to black Americans was like kiting bad checks, and the United States must cover this check immediately (716).  King accomplished several goals with this speech: he made his case for black civil rights to the largest white American audience to ever hear him speak; he tied the need for equal rights to the sacred words of the Declaration and to white Americans sense of responsibility; and he changed the equal rights timetable from “we shall overcome” gradualism to right now.  In the next two years the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 became law; they provided strong enforceable civil rights protections, and are the tools our country used to make significant progress toward equal rights for all.


Jefferson, Lincoln and King all attempted to define the rights of Americans as broadly as their times allowed.  Furthermore, each played a significant role in leading America out of a crisis and transforming the nation.  By providing ideas that made Americans think of themselves and their nation in new ways, they endowed us with the framework for the freedom we enjoy in the United States.  This is why America holds all three men it its pantheon of heroes.  While the United States is not yet a nation where we are all created completely equal, or all enjoy the same rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, we are closer to this goal than we have ever been in our existence. Our country owes a tremendous debt for this progress to the words, and deeds, of Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr.



Works Cited


Brodie, Fawn M. Jefferson: An Intimate History. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.  1974.  Print.


Ellis, Joseph J. American Sphinx. New York: Vintage Books.  1998.  Print. 

McQuade, Donald et al. Ed.  The Writer’s Presence.  Boston: Bedford/St. Martins.  2009.  Print.


Jefferson, Thomas.  “The Declaration of Independence”.  McQuade.   706-709. 

King, Martin Luther, Jr. “I Have a Dream”.  McQuade.  715-718.


Lincoln, Abraham. “Gettysburg Address”.  McQuade.  460-461. 

Wills, Garry. Lincoln at Gettysburg. New York: Simon and Schuster. 1992. Print.

DRAFT: This module has unpublished changes.