Great American Minds on ‘All Men Are Created Equal’

The following reflections, from some of the finest articulators of the American mind, examine the meaning of equality, race, and the national soul. As we celebrate our nation’s independence on July 4, let these words encourage us to remember the truth of America’s founding promises of equality and liberty for all, as expressed in the Declaration of Independence: “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.”

Thomas Jefferson

“All eyes are opened, or opening, to the rights of man. The general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view the palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God.” – From a letter to Roger C. Weightman, June 24, 1826 

Abraham Lincoln

“All honor to Jefferson—to the man who, in the concrete pressure of a struggle for national independence by a single people, had the coolness, forecast, and capacity to introduce into a merely revolutionary document, an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times, and so to embalm it there, that today, and in all coming days, it shall be a rebuke and a stumbling block to the very harbingers of reappearing tyranny and oppression.” – From a letter to Henry L. Pierce, April 6, 1859

Martin Luther King Jr.

“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.” – From “I Have a Dream” Speech, Aug. 28, 1963

Harry V. Jaffa

“It is not wonderful that a nation of slaveholders, upon achieving independence, failed to abolish slavery. What is wonderful, indeed miraculous, is that a nation of slaveholders founded a new nation on the proposition that ‘all men are created equal,’ making the abolition of slavery a moral and political necessity.” – From “The False Prophets of American Conservatism,” Feb. 12, 1998

Eleanor Roosevelt

“True patriotism springs from a belief in the dignity of the individual, freedom and equality not only for Americans but for all people on earth, universal brotherhood and good will, and a constant striving toward the principles and ideals on which this country was founded.” – From “Eleanor Roosevelt’s Book of Common Sense Etiquette,” 1962

Abraham Lincoln

“As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master. This expresses my idea of democracy. Whatever differs from this, to the extent of the difference, is not democracy.” – From “Fragment on Slavery,” Aug. 1, 1858

Barbara Jordan

“We are a people in a quandary about the present. We are a people in search of our future. We are a people in search of a national community. We are a people trying not only to solve the problems of the present, unemployment, inflation, but we are attempting on a larger scale to fulfill the promise of America. We are attempting to fulfill our national purpose, to create and sustain a society in which all of us are equal.” – From a speech at the Democratic National Convention, July 12, 1976

Calvin Coolidge

“If all men are created equal, that is final. If they are endowed with inalienable rights, that is final. If governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, that is final. No advance, no progress can be made beyond these propositions. If anyone wishes to deny their truth or their soundness, the only direction in which he can proceed historically is not forward, but backward toward the time when there was no equality, no rights of the individual, no rule of the people.” – From his speech on the 150th Anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, July 5, 1926

Frederick Douglass

“I hold that the Federal Government was never, in its essence, anything but an anti-slavery government. Abolish slavery tomorrow, and not a sentence of syllable of the Constitution need be altered. It was purposely so framed as to give no claim, no sanction to the claim, of property in man. If in its true origin slavery had any relation to the government, it was only as the scaffolding to the magnificent structure, to be removed as soon as the building was completed.” – From his “Address for the Promotion of Colored Enlistment,” 1864

Ronald Reagan

“We believe—and we believe it so deeply that Americans know these words by heart—we believe ‘that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among those are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.’ Take an American student or teacher aside later today and ask if he or she hasn’t committed those words to memory. They are from the document by which we created our nation, the Declaration of Independence.” – From his speech at Fudan University in Shanghai, China, April 30, 1984

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