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The meaning of Thomas Jefferson's phrase "all men are created equal"

Thomas Jefferson The Declaration of Independence, which contains the oft-repeated phrase "…that all men are created equal…" was written by Thomas Jefferson, who owned about 200 slaves at the time and never set any of them free, even upon his death. Jefferson's words certainly had no reference to black people, of whom the majority at that time had no place in American society except as property.

For Americans, equality is a word that has been expanded in its definition since the founding of the country. For Jefferson and many of our Founding Fathers, the phrase "…that all men are created equal…" really meant that "all free, property-owning males are created equal". Questioned Frederick Douglass in his Rochester speech: "Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us?" (Lowance 41) Fortunately for Douglass (and all races and both sexes), the United States has moved to achieve full legal equality. (Patterson 132)

Equality is hard to define because its meaning keeps changing. Jefferson's restrictive definition, that "people are of equal moral worth, and as such deserve equal treatment under the law", made distinctions for free men vs. slaves, men vs. women, property owners vs. debtors, et cetera (Patterson 132). On the one hand, most Americans' notion of legal equality makes no such distinctions. De facto equality, on the other hand, is, as Martin Luther King, Jr. has said, still a "dream".

The written law does not look at one's race but at the crime committed; the sentencing should not be dependent on the race of the convict. Even though Thomas Jefferson owned slaves to his death, I believe this is what Jefferson meant when he said "all men are created equal" — that Americans are entitled to equal justice under the law (Patterson 10).

Equality is not something that a government can grant or deny a body of citizens; for this right is unalienable. Our Bill of Rights can be more accurately thought of as a list of restrictions (placed on government) that secures a citizen's civil liberties. Exclaimed King in 1961: "[Our Declaration of Independence] says that each individual has certain basic rights, which are neither conferred by nor derived from the state. To discover where they came from it is necessary to move back behind the dim mist of eternity, for they are God-given." (Noyes "Historical Speeches")

The United States government's intervention has helped to establish legal equality, but not necessarily de facto equality. (Patterson 132) In the past sixty years it has moved to eradicate racial and sexual discrimination. In fact, "Americans have attained substantial equality under the law"; legal discrimination is now almost nonexistent (Patterson 132). In this way, our elected and appointed officials have promoted legal equality by passing anti-discrimination laws and by declaring segregation unconstitutional. Furthermore, the US government is already promoting de facto equality with the graduated tax code, economic welfare and entitlement programs, affirmative action, et cetera. The government should by all means promote legal equality — as it has — but its responsibility should extend "no further than the removal of legal barriers to equality." (Patterson 153) De facto equality will be a reality when people cease to be prejudicial. This is not something Congress can fix by passing a law.

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Works Cited

Foner, Philip S. The Voice of Black America: Major Speeches by Negroes in the United States, 1797-1971; New York: Simon & Schuster, 1972.

Lowance, Mason I, ed. Against Slavery: An Abolitionist ReaderAgainst Slavery: An Abolitionist Reader. New York: Penguin Books, 2000.

Noyes, Jamie. "Historical Speeches" Accessed: 27 Oct 2003 / no revision date. Source derived from Philip Foner (see above)

Patterson, Thomas A. The American Democracy — Alternate Edition. Boston: McGraw Gill, 2003.