The Declaration of Independence and the Long Struggle for Equality in America: An Introduction
Whatever else the Declaration of Independence encompassed—a proclamation of political sovereignty, an indictment against the King of England, an appeal for allies—its assertion that “all men are created equal” shines as the polestar of American history. Versions of the phrase predate Thomas Jefferson’s usage and he was no doubt influenced in his thinking by the writings of various Enlightenment philosophers: Locke, Montesquieu, Voltaire, and Rousseau, among others. He was not alone. In Common Sense, Thomas Paine wrote about “all men being originally equals.” Weeks before the Declaration of Independence appeared, planter George Mason stated in the Virginia Declaration of Rights that “all men are by nature equally free and independent.” Jefferson likely worked on the Declaration from a draft of the Virginia Declaration that appeared in the Pennsylvania Gazette. In his hands, Mason’s formulation first became “all men are created equal & independent” and then “all men are created equal.”
Generations of Americans have wondered how slaveholders such as Mason and Jefferson could posit the equality of men and yet never free the people they had enslaved. A Doonesbury cartoon by G. B. Trudeau, published on July 4, 1976, exposed the contradiction in ways only a comic could. In the strip, the character Nate reads aloud the Declaration of Independence and Sammy, an enslaved man, wonders, “‘All men are created equal’?! Nate, does that mean what I think it does?” Nate answers, “Probably not, Sammy,” to which Sammy responds, “You mean Jefferson sold us out?”
What seems like inconsistency to us did not seem so to Jefferson and other Revolutionary slaveholders. Perhaps they believed born free of subjugation did not mean some could or should not be enslaved. They certainly feared the presence of free Blacks in America. They were mired in racial attitudes that saw Blacks as inferior and fostered a plantation economy that depended on slave labor. Jefferson understood that slavery was wrong and would destroy the nation, but he felt it was for future generations to deal with the problem.
Although Jefferson did not include enslaved people in his meaning, they themselves did. For example, in January 1777, in a petition to the Massachusetts legislature, a group of enslaved people stated that they “have in Common with all other men a Natural and Unaliable [inalienable] Right to that freedom which the Grat Parent of the Unavers hath Bestowed equalley on all menkind.”
They were not alone, and over time “all men are created equal” became a credo of the abolitionist movement. For example, in 1854, William Lloyd Garrison, editor of the Liberator, proclaimed, “I am a believer in that portion of the Declaration of American Independence in which it is set forth, as among self-evident truths, ‘that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.’ Hence, I am an Abolitionist. Hence, I cannot but regard oppression in every form—and most of all, that which turns a man into a thing—with indignation and abhorrence.”
No abolitionist exposed more fully the contradictions between the language of the Declaration and slavery than Frederick Douglass. In his speech “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” delivered on July 5, 1852, to a large audience in Rochester’s Corinthian Hall, Douglass excoriated White Americans for their hypocrisy. He labeled their “shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery,” and denounced celebrations of independence as a sham. He quoted the Declaration and highlighted the inconsistency that despite its eloquence “you hold securely, in a bondage, which according to your own Thomas Jefferson, ‘is worse than ages of that which your fathers rose in rebellion to oppose,’ a seventh part of the inhabitants of your country.” Your country, he emphasized, not his. The United States, he thundered, “is false to the past, false to the present, and solemnly binds herself to be false to the future.”
Women, too, embraced the principle of equality expressed in the Declaration. At a convention at Seneca Falls in 1848, organized by Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton and attended by some men, including Frederick Douglass, a Declaration of Sentiments asserted, “we hold these truths to be self-evident: all men and women are created equal.” Stanton modeled her declaration directly on Jefferson’s and included a list of injuries that men had committed against women.
It would fall to Abraham Lincoln to make the latent idea of equality for all in the Declaration of Independence central to the meaning of America. He praised Jefferson as a man who had “the coolness, forecast, and capacity to introduce into a merely revolutionary document, an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times.” For Lincoln, the Declaration was scripture. At Philadelphia, in 1861, he proclaimed, “I have never had a feeling politically that did not spring from the sentiments embodied in the Declaration of Independence.” 5] The Gettysburg Address in 1863 anchored the United States on the principle that the Founding Fathers in 1776 (“four score and seven years ago”) created a nation “conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” The war would bring an end to slavery and advance the struggle to make the promise of equality tangible and real.
That promise applied not only to color but to class, and in the late nineteenth century the populist movement cited the Declaration in support of its call for regulation and reform. The Omaha Platform, adopted on July 4, 1892, at the Peoples Party Convention, began by invoking the anniversary of the Declaration and appealing to farmers and workers for their cooperation in counteracting a rising social inequality that produced “the two great classes—tramps and millionaires.” Some saw the Omaha platform as a second Declaration of Independence.
The awareness of social inequality surged during the depression of the 1930s when Franklin Delano Roosevelt called for an economic bill of rights that would “assure us equality in the pursuit of happiness.” It is fitting that his final message to the American people was prepared for celebrations of Thomas Jefferson’s birthday.
The words “all men are created equal” would continue to inspire social movements to bring American life into alignment with the axioms expressed in the Declaration. Martin Luther King Jr. considered the Declaration a promissory note for the future. In his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” in response to accusations that he was an extremist, he asked, “Was not Jefferson an extremist?” Standing before the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963, he proclaimed, “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’”
From the moment those words appeared in the Declaration, some Americans have challenged the nation to make them reflect the condition of things. With passage of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, Fifteenth, and Nineteenth Amendments, as well as the civil rights legislation of the 1960s, the country progressed toward greater equality. As long as the ideal exists, so too does the chance of living up to it. Jefferson once said, “I like the dreams of the future better than the history of the past.” We are that future, and the words he wrote are always at the ready to inspire us.
Louis P. Masur is Board of Governors Distinguished Professor of American Studies and History at Rutgers University. His most recent book is The Sum of Our Dreams: A Concise History of America (Oxford University Press, 2020).
 Lancaster Hill, Peter Bess, Brister Slenser, Prince Hall, et al., “The Petition of a great number of Negroes who are detained in a state of Slavery,” January 13, 1777. State House in Massachusetts Archives, vol. 212, p. 132.
 William Lloyd Garrison, No Compromise with Slavery. An Address Delivered in the Broadway Tabernacle, New York , February 14, 1854 (New York: American Anti-Slavery Society, 1854), p. 5.
 Frederick Douglass, Oration, Delivered in Corinthian Hall, Rochester . . . July 5, 1852 (Rochester: Lee, Mann & Co., 1852), pp. 20, 34, and 16.
 Abraham Lincoln, Letter to Henry L. Pierce and others, Springfield, Illinois, April 6, 1859.
 Abraham Lincoln, Address at Independence Hall, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, February 22, 1861.
 Franklin D. Roosevelt, “Economic Bill of Rights,” in the 1944 Annual Message to Congress, January 11, 1944.
 Thomas Jefferson, Letter to John Adams, August 1, 1816.