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Equality & the Declaration of Independence

By Kyle Roberts

“All men are created equal” is perhaps the least understood and most abused phrase in American Independence literature.

As with most other historical concepts – stripped of original context – it has come to be the philosophical authority for virtually every social doctrine, special interest persuasion, international proceeding, and progressive ideology.

As a side note, this phrase and the paragraph it belongs to have almost entirely overshadowed the actual Declaration of Independence.

Most people memorize, or are familiar with, the first two paragraphs. Yet these are only the philosophical reasoning and authority for the last paragraph – the most important paragraph in defense of State Sovereignty.

It is the last paragraph that declares independence: “That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States; that they are Absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown…”

Another critical feature is Jefferson’s direct transition from Colonies to Free and Independent States. But, the last paragraph and the subject of Independent States is a theme for another article.

Our immediate concern regards the word equality and the various styles in which it was used during the founding era.

There were many usages of the terms equal and equality present in governmental dialogue of Independent America. In general themes, there were five common usages.

Two came from Locke, a third was best expressed by John Taylor of Caroline, another related directly to “freemen,” and a fifth was propagated by the Scottish Common Sense school of Philosophy under the pen of Francis Hutcheson (whom Jefferson was heavily influenced by).

THE FIRST LOCKEAN PRINCIPLE OF EQUALITY held that no man has a natural or God-given right to rule over another person.

There were some who used this argument as an invalidation of the institution of slavery. However in the main, it was used only against the regal doctrine of divine right of kings.

In other words, most who embraced this idea extended its implications only to those who ruled over them – to kings – but not to those whom they ruled over.

Those who held positions of power and responsibility did so by graces of the people. They stood in their position on grounds of good behavior and if that trust was violated they were promptly removed.

It was that relation, between kings and subjects, that almost all Americans agreed all men were created equal. Birth or position does not automatically separate a man from his fellows and grant him special dispensation to exercise authority over them.

THE SECOND LOCKEAN PRINCIPLE OF EQUALITY derives from the premise that human beings are born with a blank slate – a tabula rasa.

Aristotle was the first to propose this idea. He described the mind of man as an unwritten tablet and only gains knowledge by experience and sense perception.

Thomas Aquinas, Francis Bacon, David Hume, John Locke and others whose writings heavily influenced the founders embraced this idea.

Essentially adult human beings are a product of social and familial tradition, time, circumstance, and individual experience. A natural philosophical development of this belief is education is critically important to the formation and operation of a good society.

Since all men are born equally ignorant, they must be taught how to be a good citizen and what proper conduct is within a free republic. Jefferson latched on to this idea with his whole heart. Virtually to his death he preached on the theme of education as the safeguard of lasting liberty.

This theme has modern undertones in the writings of Freud, Dewey, and other social engineers.

THE THIRD IDEA OF EQUALITY was directly concerned with morality.  The average 18th century person was steeped in the belief of an afterlife and final judgment.

The existence of deity was a social given as was the belief that all men – black and white – were directly accountable to Him; and thus were equally bound by moral duties with obligation and authorization to perform them.

John Taylor of Caroline was arguably the most outspoken advocate of this opinion. Though writing after the revolutionary era, he claimed his opinions accurately represented the true approach of the great American revolutionaries.

He felt most historical forms of government motivated man’s evil tendencies and thus corrupted his moral sense. But if the government were properly framed and it’s policies were true to the promotion of man’s honorable tendencies then man would be most inclined to perform his moral duty.

Such duties included hard work, self accountability, industry, education, along with the defense of freedom of religion, speech, press, inquiry, adequate division of power between sovereigns, elections by freemen, and representative democratic forms.

The equality thus shared by all men was no trivial abstraction but one they were obliged to defend here for they would be accountable for it before the King of kings.

THE FOURTH VIEW OF EQUALITY had direct reference to men – specifically “freemen.”

The word “men” in the phrase “all men are created equal” has, in our day, been extrapolated to include all human beings regardless of race, age, or gender. Whether this is acceptable or not in the legal American tradition is not relevant here. We are solely concerned with its substantive meaning then.

This idea of equality is the most common reference used today: that of equality under the law. What is missed in this argument is that during the founding era women, slaves, and children had no legal standing politically or in the courts.

Traditionally, Freemen were those who were not tied – or bound – to the land as in medieval feudalism. In America it excluded indentured servants, domestic servants, and of course slaves.

This class of people made up “the citizens” because they held legal status. In the convention of 1787 there was intense debate surrounding the question of who should receive the privilege of voting.

There were many who advocated property requirements in order to vote on grounds that if those without property could vote they, being in the majority, would use that privilege to vote themselves benefits out of the purses of the propertied class.

This idea of limiting the rights of citizenship to “freemen” was also entirely compatible with commonly held principles of republican theory and government.

Upon reexamination of the specific Declaration phrases in light of this concept of equality we arrive at an entirely different view of “all men are created equal” than is commonly preached.

“We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all men (freemen) are created equal, that they are endowed by their created with certain unalienable rights (the rights of freemen are unalienable, those of servants or slaves obviously were not) that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

To be sure the rights of liberty alone, not to mention life and the pursuit of happiness, were not granted to “all men” – but to all “freemen.”

As an aristocratic elitist mentality this approach can and has been the subject of censure. Yet there were very few indeed who viewed it that way. For most it was a matter of course, practicality, and good government policy.

Extending the legal franchise to all people, period, has historically been a leading cause of social decay and disintegration. The framers were conscientious of framing a system of government that would go as far as possible in overcoming the ills and weaknesses of those forms of government.

In the view and understanding of a reasonably well informed individual of the revolutionary era, the phrase “all men are created equal” had reference to the common understanding of the concept of “freemen.” And equality under the law applied only to those who enjoyed legal status.

THE FIFTH CONCEPTION OF EQUALITY came from the Scottish Common Sense school of Philosophy, the specific doctrine of which was that all human beings are born with a moral sense. Born with an innate knowledge of good and evil, right and wrong, and a principled nature – all men, wrote Francis Hutcheson, “are originally equal.”

As such they have equal ability to determine their representatives and judging whether the behavior of their choice is good or evil, right or wrong. “Nature makes none masters, none slaves” wrote Hutcheson.

Quite apart from the fourth concept of equality, the logical step from this premise is a position of extreme democracy. All will be involved in government: rich and poor, bond and free, male and female.

Jefferson, among others, grasped this theory and preached it till his death. Ironically for Jefferson, this position alone completely negated the institution of slavery as morally acceptable on the premise of the “original equality.”

Such are the generally held ideas surrounding the concept of equality in the founding era. I make no allusions to which is right or wrong. The point is to clarify the fact that there were many different approaches and the same is true with virtually every other philosophy surrounding the eventful time.

Therefore what? With such different and diverging views what constructive conclusion can be drawn for us in our day?

I offer a few observations.

Revolutionary America was more than just a war of swords but a war of words, of ideas, of philosophy, and of application. History can be summed up as man’s reaction to the world around him. It is the sum of all the decisions made by human beings as a response to his environment, senses, perceptions, and beliefs.

The ideas that win the day rarely do so because they are morally right and divinely inspired. Rather, they win because they are clearly understood and fearlessly fought for. The opinions of men are largely shaped by those who tirelessly and heroically prosecute their cause – whether good or evil.

Unfortunately the evil people have been more tireless and thus more successful at getting their philosophy adopted by governments and the people. If we want an opinion or idea to be accepted and adopted we must fight for it with all our heart, mind, and strength; using every means possible and available to propagate the philosophy.

It is never sufficient to blindly assert the past when the present is fraught with ambiguity and deception. In order to apply the past to the present it must be clearly understood. Then one must decide where he stands.

A blind man has very little reference points to ascertain his position. He is hardly able to say where he is in relation to any given object. We must strive to understand things as they were that we might be able to confidently, fearlessly, and humbly engage things as they are.

The idea that the founders had a monopoly on all principles of good government and understood and agreed on all philosophy of social arrangement is simply false. The founding era was a titanic struggle amongst a multiplicity of factions, interests, and belief systems.

Many of the framers themselves claimed their ideas were insufficient and they relied on future generations to improve on the science of good government and social structure and fix what they had missed.

We must do with them as Newton did and stand on the shoulders of those giants and improve on what they have done.

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Kyle Roberts is a small business owner who has committed his life to the cause of freedom. He is dedicated to recreating strong local self-government in his community by creating, and helping others create, institutions that create and preserve freedom.

He teaches a four-part lecture series on the Original Understanding of the Constitution for free to the community.

Kyle and his wife Kim own and operate Prudent Living Food Storage. They live in Spanish Fork, Utah with their two children.

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Equality & the Declaration of Independence