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The quotation "All men are created equal" is arguably the best-known phrase in any of Americamarker's political documents. Thomas Jefferson first used the phrase in the Declaration of Independence as a rebuttal to the going political theory of the day: the Divine Right of Kings. It was thereafter quoted or incorporated into speeches by a wide array of substantial figures in American political and social life.

Origin of Jefferson's use of the phrase

Line containing Jefferson's use of the phrase "all men are created equal", in the Declaration of Independence.
Jefferson borrowed the expression from an Italian friend and neighbor, Philip Mazzei,Philip Mazzei, The Virginia Gazette, 1774. Translated by a friend and neighbor, Thomas Jefferson:

 as noted by Joint Resolution 175 of the 103rd Congress as well as John F. Kennedy in "A Nation Of Immigrants."

The opening of the United States Declaration of Independence written by Thomas Jefferson in 1776, states as follows:

The same concept appears in the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780, which was written mostly by John Adams. The Declaration of Rights of the Inhabitants of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts which opens that constitution states:

The plaintiffs in the cases of Brom and Bett v. John Ashley and Commonwealth v. Nathaniel Jennison argued that this provision abolished slavery in abolished in Massachusetts. The latter case resulted in a a "sweeping declaration . . . that the institution of slavery was incompatible with the principles of liberty and legal equality articulated in the new Massachusetts Constitution".

These statements illustrated the idea of natural rights, a philosophical concept of the Enlightenment and many of the ideas in the Declaration were borrowed from the Englishmarker liberal political philosopher John Locke. Locke, however, referred to "life, liberty and Property" rather than the pursuit of happiness.

The phrase has since been considered a hallmark statement in democratic constitutions and similar human rights instruments, many of which have adopted the phrase or variants thereof.

Applications in American history

Declaring the equality of all men did not prevent the United States from continuing the widespread practice of slavery, although the phrase was frequently raised by abolitionists in anti-slavery arguments. However, President Abraham Lincoln relied on the Declaration of Independence when making the case that slavery went against the deepest commitments of the American nation. Though he did so throughout the 1850s and into his presidency, the most famous example can be found in the Gettysburg Address:

When Elizabeth Cady Stanton and others convened at the Seneca Falls Convention held in Seneca Fallsmarker, New Yorkmarker in July 1848, they drafted and signed a document titled the Declaration of Sentiments. The opening sentence alludes to this phrase:

The phrase was also quoted by Martin Luther King, Jr. in his famous I Have a Dream speech, as the "creed" of the United States:

Hobbesian Origin

In fact Thomas Hobbes proposed an early version of equality among men in his treatise The Leviathan:

In the above passage Hobbes proposes an equivalence among men, based on the idea that the strongest man is not so strong that he is protected from the strength of the weakest and is thus not strong enough to be considered greater.

See also


  1. See, e.g., Jack P. Greene, All Men Are Created Equal: Some Reflections on the Character of the American Revolution (1976). p. 5: "Perhaps no single phrase from the Revolutionary era has had such continuing importance in American public life as the dictum 'all men are created equal'".
  2. John Wynne Jeudwine, Pious Phrases in Politics: An Examination of Some Popular Catchwords, their Misuse and Meanings (1919), p. 27, quoting Senator Lyman Trumbull of Illinois, author of the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, as referencing the "immortal declaration that all men are created equal".
  3. According to Joint Resolution 175 of the 103rd Congress, "the phrase in the Declaration of Independence 'All men are created equal' was suggested by the Italian patriot and immigrant Philip Mazzei.
  4. "The great doctrine 'All men are created equal' incorporated into the Declaration of Independence by Thomas Jefferson, was paraphrased from the writing of Philip Mazzei, an Italian-born patriot and pamphleteer, who was a close friend of Jefferson." by John F. Kennedy, A Nation of Immigrants pp. 15-16
  5. The Massachusetts Constitution, Judicial Review and Slavery — The Quock Walker Case, Massachusetts Judicial Branch (2007).

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