Featured Primary Resource
President Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address, 1861
Video
An Overview of Key Moments in the Separation of Powers and the Supreme Court; Federalism and the Two Court Systems
Teacher's Resource
JFK’s Inaugural Address
Show Teasers

The Declaration of Independence and the Long Struggle for Equality in America: An Introduction

A detail from a copy of the Declaration of Independence published by Peter Timothy in Charleston, South Carolina, August 1776 (Gilder Lehrman Institute, GLC00959)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.

Petition for freedom from "A Great Number of Blackes" to the Massachusetts Council and the House of Representative, January 1777 (Jeremy Belknap Papers, Massachusetts Historical Society)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.”[1]

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.”[2]

A pamphlet printing of Frederick Douglass's speech "What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July," "Oration Delivered in Corinthian Hall, Rochester, July 5, 1852" (The Gilder Lehrman Institute, GLC06829)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.”[3]

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.”[4] 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.”[6] 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.”[7] 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).


[1] 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.

[2] 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.

[3] Frederick Douglass, Oration, Delivered in Corinthian Hall, Rochester . . . July 5, 1852 (Rochester: Lee, Mann & Co., 1852), pp. 20, 34, and 16.

[4] Abraham Lincoln, Letter to Henry L. Pierce and others, Springfield, Illinois, April 6, 1859.

[5] Abraham Lincoln, Address at Independence Hall, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, February 22, 1861.

[6] Franklin D. Roosevelt, “Economic Bill of Rights,” in the 1944 Annual Message to Congress, January 11, 1944.

[7] Thomas Jefferson, Letter to John Adams, August 1, 1816.

Timeline: The Era of Theodore Roosevelt

Inside the Vault: D-Day in maps and letters from soldiers and families: "Although I'm bursting to talk about it, I can't"

On June 2, 2022, our curators discussed D-Day, the Allied invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944. They were joined by Professor Michael Neiberg, Chair of War Studies at the US Army War College, who gave an overview of the battle and examined letters illustrating how Americans learned about and reacted to the invasion.

Click here to download the slides from the presentation. 

Theodore Roosevelt supports women’s suffrage, 1912

In this letter written in July 1912, during his campaign for a thrid term as president, Theodore Roosevelt informs the state and county chairmen of the Progressive Party of his plan to support women’s suffrage. The document shows the many edits Roosevelt made as he refined his message.

Theodore Roosevelt to State and County Chairmen of the Progressive Party, July 30, 1912. (The Gilder Lehrman Institute, GLC07818)Roosevelt wrote this letter supporting women’s suffrage in 1912, but he had fought for equality for women much earlier in his life. As a senior at Harvard University in 1880, he had written about marriage equality and urged women not to change their last name upon marriage. As a New York State Assembly member in 1883, he introduced a bill supporting corporal punishment for men who abused their wives. Additionally, as president of the New York City Board of Police Commissioners from 1895 to 1897, Roosevelt hired women for positions of executive leadership in the police department.

Roosevelt concludes his letter with a recommendation: “I venture respectfully to suggest that you take this matter under advisement and, so far as possible, get the women to aid the men in this great struggle to lift to a higher plane, morally and materially, the conditions of life and labor for both men and women.”

At the time of Roosevelt’s letter, women had gained full suffrage in only six states: California, Colorado, Idaho, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming. Arizona, Kansas, and Oregon would be added to the list later that year. The National Progressive Party wanted women to play important roles in the campaign, including as delegates to the national convention and as members of state and county committees. Women did attend the convention as delegates, alternates, and observers, and Jane Addams seconded the nomination of Theodore Roosevelt as the party’s candidate for president.

Excerpt

In my key note speech I am favoring woman sufferage by states. . . . The Progressive party as a whole undoubtedly believes in it. We do not attempt to dictate what any State should do in this matter for we know that the needs and feelings of the States vary; but we do cordially commend the matter to the well thought out judgement of the people of each state, both the men and the women. Women should should make the fight within the Progressive Party. They should help in founding a party which will represent the whole people in their fight for social justice. One chief feature in that fight is the protection of working women and children in their struggle for fair hours, for decent wages and for living conditions which will make vice and poverty unnecessary.

I therefore hope that wherever it is possible we shall see women delegates to the National Convention, and women members of the State and County Committees.

Teddy Roosevelt campaigns for a third term, 1912

In February 1912, former president Theodore Roosevelt stunned the country by challenging President William Howard Taft for the Republican nomination. The move was not only a rejection of his friend Taft, it also violated an unwritten rule of American politics. Roosevelt had already had two terms in office, and no president had ever had a third. Roosevelt insisted that he was running out of duty, not personal ambition. As president, he had charted a politically progressive course, but under Taft, his chosen successor, the country had been becoming more conservative.

In 1912 primary elections played a big role in presidential politics for the first time, but only twelve out of forty-eight states held primaries. While Roosevelt won those primaries, it became obvious that the party bosses in the non-primary states would give most of the delegates to Taft. In a last-ditch effort to secure the Republican Party nomination, Roosevelt distributed cards such as this one with instructions on how to vote for him at the convention.

Theodore Roosevelt, Instruction card for Ohio Delegates to the Republican National Convention, 1912. (The Gilder Lehrman Institute, GLC01487)

When it became clear that Roosevelt would be about seventy votes shy of winning the nomination, he announced he was leaving the Republican Party and forming a new party. Officially known as the National Progressive Party, it became known as the Bull Moose Party when in June 1912 he described himself as “fit as a bull moose.”

Roosevelt campaigned at railroad whistle-stops along the East Coast, across the South, and deep into the Midwest. On the evening of October 14 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, John Schrank shot Teddy Roosevelt in the chest to prevent him from becoming a third-term president. The steel eyeglass case and speech in Roosevelt’s breast pocket slowed the bullet, which lodged in his rib. Doctors decided it was safer to leave it than risk surgery.

The attempted murder sidelined Roosevelt for the rest of his campaign. In a letter dated November 2, just three days before the election, Roosevelt apologized for not being able to speak in Brooklyn. He explained,

I have received many scores of urgent requests to speak in the various cities where it had been announced that I was to speak during the closing fortnight of the campaign-messages from Philadelphia, from Buffalo, from Rochester, from Syracuse and Albany, from Hartford and New Haven, and from many other cities. It was with the most genuine regret that I was obliged to answer that it was a physical impossibility for me to do as I would so like to have done and speak in these cities. Through no fault of mine I was obliged to abandon the engagements I had made and to ask my friends and fellow-citizens to accept a written message from me in lieu of the words I had hoped to speak face to face with them.

With Roosevelt and Taft dividing the Republican vote, Democratic candidate Woodrow Wilson won the election. Taft later became Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court. Read more about the election of 1912 here.

The Bull Moose Party collapsed in the midterm elections of 1914 and died in 1916, but the ideals that the Progressives articulated in 1912 lived on in American politics for decades. Their influence can be seen in Woodrow Wilson’s New Freedom, Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. Many of the Progressives’ ideas had been proposed by candidates in previous elections, but Roosevelt incorporated them into a broad vision of the role that the national government could play in advancing equality. He engaged Americans in one of the most serious conversations they had ever had about who they were as a nation, and what they might become.

Inside the Vault: The Life and Times of Theodore Roosevelt

On May 5, 2022, our curators discussed documents written by President Theodore Roosevelt. Joined by his great-grandson Tweed Roosevelt, we learned more about Roosevelt and his legacy. This session of Inside the Vault was sponsored by HISTORY.

Click here to download the slides from the presentation.