All Men Are Created Equal: The Revolution That Mattered
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.
It has long been my contention that this sentence from the Declaration Of Independence is among the most radical, the most powerful, and the most consequential in the entirety of the English language. With this one sentence, Thomas Jefferson swept away all traditional understandings of human worth and human dignity, setting in their stead a radical new standard of human value. Jefferson was not the first to argue human equality--John Locke was the source for much of his philosophical logic and even a fair bit of his rhetoric, having posited human equality within the state of nature in his Second Treatise on Government. Yet Jefferson was the first man to put these words to paper in a consequential context. This was no mere philosophical exploration, but a declaration of political action--an action that could have severe repercussions for all who signed it.
We should recall the history preceding the Declaration of Independence. The previous year, on July 5, 1775, the Continental Congress approved the Olive Branch Petition, in an effort to peaceably resolve the disputes the colonists had with the Parliament in Westminster. This missive, addressed to King George III, hoped to obtain his intercession with Parliament and curtail what the Continental Congress described as "the delusive pretences, fruitless terrors, and unavailing severities" of the various ministers tasked with administering colonial relations on behalf of Parliament and the Crown. The petition began with a clear homily to the colonists' status as British subjects, and their desire to remain so:
The union between our Mother Country and these colonies, and the energy of mild and just government, produced benefits so remarkably important, and afforded such an assurance of their permanency and increase, that the wonder and envy of other Nations were excited, while they beheld Great Britain riseing to a power the most extraordinary the world had ever known.
Two days after the Olive Branch Petition was presented to King George, he issued the now-infamous Rebellion Proclamation, not only rejecting the Petition, but declaring its very existence to be a treason against the Crown, and charging the whole of the British Empire to bring the traitors to justice:
...that not only all our Officers, civil and military, are obliged to exert their utmost endeavors to suppress such rebellion, and to bring the traitors to justice, but that all our subjects of this Realm, and the dominions thereunto belonging, are bound by law to be aiding and assisting in the suppression of such rebellion, and to disclose and make known all traitorous conspiracies and attempts against us, our crown and dignity.
This is the backdrop against which Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence. The members of the Continental Congress, along with the nascent Continental Army then besieging the city of Boston, were already declared traitors. Continuing a quest either for independence or a fair redress of colonial grievance would be considered proof of treason--a crime punishable by death. The Declaration of Independence was his response to the Rebellion Proclamation.
It was a powerful response. In simple and direct language, Thomas Jefferson laid out the colonial case for seeking independence. Yet Jefferson went farther than just rejecting the assertions of the Rebellion Proclamation. His solution to the problem of King George branding the colonial activists of the time traitors was to simply deny King George's authority to even propose such a thing. Where the Rebellion Proclamation was grounded in the premise that British subjects had an intrinsic duty of allegiance to the Crown and obedience to its edicts, Jefferson discarded that relationship altogether, arguing instead the Lockean principle of human equality within the state of nature, and declaring that human rights were an endowment from God, not from the King nor from Parliament.
This is a remarkable political statement for the time, for the British Bill Of Rights, passed by Parliament in 1689 in the aftermath of the "Glorious Revolution" that replaced James II with his daughter Mary and her husband William of Orange, phrased the source of such rights as the Parliament--a British subject's rights were determined by Parliament, not by God:
And thereupon the said Lords Spiritual and Temporal and Commons, pursuant to their respective letters and elections, being now assembled in a full and free representative of this nation, taking into their most serious consideration the best means for attaining the ends aforesaid, do in the first place (as their ancestors in like case have usually done) for the vindicating and asserting their ancient rights and liberties declare
Jefferson not only rejected this human derivation of human rights, he subordinated the entire edifice of government to their protection:
— That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
Thus Thomas Jefferson expanded the list of unalienable rights to include the right to alter or abolish government that a people found to be hostile to the defense of Mankind's unalienable rights. Where King George proclaimed the activities of the Continental Congress a rebellion, Thomas Jefferson doubled down by proclaiming an unalienable right of the thirteen colonies to rebel. Simply and directly, Jefferson nullified not just King George's Rebellion Proclamation, but the very right of any King (or any Parliament) to even make such a proclamation. If people deem their government hostile to their fundamental liberty, rebellion is their right, and no power on earth may deny them that right.
The "American Revolution" was not a revolution of arms, nor of military muscle. It was and it remains a revolution of ideas. Thomas Jefferson's idea, of the equality and unalienable sovereignty of Man, gave the separatist ambitions of the Continental Congress a moral force and a moral relevance never before seen in history. From this single document flows a singular experiment in human governance, one that has not been attempted nor replicated since--a government subordinate to the will of the people. That sentiment was restated at the Constitutional Convention in 1787, with the equally eloquent Preamble to the United States Constitution:
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
Americans have debated and discussed the meanings and imports of Jefferson's words. At Gettysburg, Abraham Lincoln, wedded this ideal of citizen sovereignty to the struggle of the Civil War, beseeching the American people to continue that struggle so that "... government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth." In 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and challenged America to measure up to Jefferson's words in his immortal "I Have A Dream" speech. Civil rights activists of every kind have invoked Jeffersonian themes of equality and fundamental human sovereignty in their various pursuits of societal justice and societal change.
What Americans have not done, what humanity as a whole has not done, is challenge Jefferson's words. While texts such as the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights seek to outdo Jefferson's comparatively compact argument, that Declaration's preamble begins with a pale paraphrasing of Jefferson:
Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world,
Unparalleled and unchallenged, the Declaration of Independence stands alone as the pre-eminent declaration of human right, human sovereignty, and human dignity. Its words were a challenge to the world in 1776, and they remain a challenge to the world today. Wherever people struggle either to define or achieve equality, or to right injustices and redress grievances, they are proving the enduring truth within its text. Wherever people seek freedom, they are continuing the revolution Thomas Jefferson started.
Thus the premise that all men are created equal was not merely a revolutionary thought for 1776. With its enduring strength and undeniable truth, it is the revolution that has informed all revolutions since. The premise that all men are created equal is the one revolution in human history that matters to us all.