Skip to content Skip to navigation

When Thomas Jefferson penned “all men are created equal,” he did not mean individual equality, says Stanford scholar

With each generation, the words expressed in the Declaration of Independence have expanded beyond what the founding fathers originally intended when they adopted the historic document on July 4, 1776, says Stanford historian Jack Rakove.

(Image credit: Getty Images)

In the decades following the Declaration of Independence, Americans began reading the affirmation that “all men are created equal” in different ways than the framers intended, says Stanford historian Jack Rakove.

On July 4, 1776, when the Continental Congress adopted the historic text drafted by Thomas Jefferson, they did not intend it to mean individual equality. Rather, what they declared was that American colonists, as a people, had the same rights to self-government as other nations. Because they possessed this fundamental right, Rakove said, they could establish new governments within each of the states and collectively assume their “separate and equal station” with other nations. It was only in the decades after the American Revolutionary War that the phrase acquired its compelling reputation as a statement of individual equality.

Here, Rakove reflects on this history and how now, in a time of heightened scrutiny of the country’s founders and the legacy of slavery and racial injustices they perpetuated, Americans can better understand the limitations and failings of their past governments.

Rakove is the William Robertson Coe Professor of History and American Studies and professor of political science, emeritus, in the School of Humanities and Sciences. His book, Original Meanings: Politics and Ideas in the Making of the Constitution (1996), won the Pulitzer Prize in History. His new book, Beyond Belief, Beyond Conscience: The Radical Significance of the Free Exercise of Religionwill be published next month.

With the U.S. confronting its history of systemic racism, are there any problems that Americans are reckoning with today that can be traced back to the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution?

I view the Declaration as a point of departure and a promise, and the Constitution as a set of commitments that had lasting consequences – some troubling, others transformative. The Declaration, in its remarkable concision, gives us self-evident truths that form the premises of the right to revolution and the capacity to create new governments resting on popular consent. The original Constitution, by contrast, involved a set of political commitments that recognized the legal status of slavery within the states and made the federal government partially responsible for upholding “the peculiar institution.” As my late colleague Don Fehrenbacher argued, the Constitution was deeply implicated in establishing “a slaveholders’ republic” that protected slavery in complex ways down to 1861.