The Meaning of “All Men are Created Equal”

Alphonsus Jr.

Your thoughtful comment @ Why Few Lawyers Know Much About the Constitution was very welcome  And I agree with much of your assessment of this truly “dead age”, as you put it.

I do, however, think you misread the Founders and perhaps even Locke when you equate “All men are created equal” with “egalitarianism”. You wrote:

 “Another fatal flaw of the American founding occurs to me: the idea that all men are created equal. By this the founders meant that no man has any natural title to rule over another. Thus the founders swept away the perennnial teaching regarding the natural hierarchy of reality. The fruit of this sweeping away we now see all around us today: the founders ‘conception of equality has become today’s egalitarianism, under which there’s no concern with nobility – indeed nobility is scorned.”

To your point, I reprint from my treatise on the Constitution, The Kiss of Judice: The Constitution Betrayed: A Coroner’s Inquest & Report, this dialogue between me (the Coroner) and Professor Russell Kirk:

Coroner: Professor Kirk, what was meant by “all men are created equal”?

Professor Kirk: [Not as much as some think.] As for equality in strength, swiftness, and beauty, those obviously are not articles in the Laws of Nature. John Adams, after Jefferson the committee-member with the largest hand in the Declaration, was given throughout his life to noting the inequality of human beings in many respects. If taken literally, the Declaration’s equality clause would fly in the face of common sense.

Yet Jefferson did write “created equal”, and the congress did not strike out the phrase. Jefferson, though not necessarily most delegates to the congress, may have been swayed here by John Locke’s notion of the baby’s blank tablet of the mind, the tabula rasa.[i]

Coroner: Might not the unscrupulous use “created equal” as a spread-the-wealth sort of rallying cry?

Professor Kirk: The demagogue may find “created equal” a slogan useful to him; in Mark Twain’s witticism, “One man is as good as another, or maybe a little better.[ii]

The men of the Continental Congress, however, did not take Jefferson’s equality clause as an affirmation of literal equality in body and mind. (In one early draft of the Declaration, the phrase is “equal & independent”; in another rough draft, “& independent” is crossed out, presumably because Dr. Franklin or some other realist thought that assertion difficult to defend: a baby, as Senator Randolph suggested, is absolutely dependent.) Rightly, they did not look upon the average American, let alone the average man everywhere, as their literal equals. They did subscribe to two venerable concepts of human equality: equality before the law, and equality in the judgment of God.[iii]

Coroner: What is the origin and meaning of “equality before the law”?

Professor Kirk: In English law, no persons were privileged when brought before the bar of justice (though noblemen must be tried for serious crimes by the House of Lords, “a jury of their peers”): the law being no respecter of persons, justice must be administered regardless of the rank and wealth of a litigant. In that sense, all Americans, too, were born equal. It was not so in positive law then in all nations; but the Patriots believed that equality before the law was true according to the laws of nature.[iv]

Coroner: What about equality in the judgment of God?

Professor Kirk: In Christian teaching, as in Jewish, there exists moral equality among all men: that is, God judges men not according to their station in life, but according to their deserts as persons; Dives and Lazarus are punished or rewarded in the divine knowledge of how well or badly they have obeyed God’s commandments, not with regard to their worldly success. Some are weighed in the balance, and found wanting, but not because of their rank here below. To this doctrine, too, the members of the Continental Congress assented: it was a pillar of the Laws of Nature’s God. * * *

So the natural-right and natural-law beliefs of 1776 were a blending of Hebraic, Christian, classical, and seventeenth- and eighteenth-century theories. That life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness were natural rights (or at least ordained through the laws of Nature’s God ) was a conviction as general in Britain, in that age, as in America; it would be carried to extravagant lengths, under a secularized version of natural-rights theory, in France within a few years. Few men of the time would have denied that governments are instituted to secure these rights.[v]


[i] Roots, p. 406 @ AFL. “Tabula rasa” means “blank slate”. See http://www.bartleby.com/59/5/tabularasa.html.

[ii] Roots, p. 407 @ AFL.

[iii] Id. at 408.

[iv] Id.

[v] Id. at 408-409.

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Published in: on March 10, 2012 at 8:58 am  Leave a Comment  

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