What does “all men are created equal” mean?

By NCCS – May 3, 2023

The Founders wrote in the Declaration of Independence that some truths are ‘self-evident’. One of these truths is that “all men are created equal.” Yet, everyone knows that no two human beings are exactly alike in any respect. They are different when they are born. They plainly exhibit different natural skills. They acquire different tastes. They develop along different lines. They vary in physical strength, mental capacity, emotional stability, inherited social status, and in scores of other ways.

If people are so different, how can they be equal? The answer is, they can’t. They can only be treated as equals according to the laws of nature and by extension, under our written laws. For example, gravity has the same effect on the old and the young, rich and the poor, etc. If a person disregards the law of gravity, he will likely be injured or killed. Just like gravity, if the laws of nature treat everyone equally, the laws of men should also treat everyone equally.

It is important to note that natural law does not demand equality in outcome, only equality under the law. It is in this way that all men are created equal. The task of society is to accept people in all their vast array of individual differences but treat them as equals in the way nature intended them to be equal. As the constitutional writer Clarence Carson explained:

“Two kinds of equality, so far as individuals are concerned, are treated in the Declaration of Independence.

“First, there is equality before the law. This means that every man’s case is tried by the same law governing any particular case. Practically, it means that there are no different laws for different classes and orders of men. The definition of premeditated murder is the same for the millionaire as for the tramp. A corollary of this is that no classes are created or recognized by law.

“Second, the Declaration refers to an equality of life. Each man is equally entitled to his life with every other man; each man has an equal title to God-given liberties along with every other.”

John Adams was in France when Jean-Jacques Rousseau was teaching that all men were designed to be equal in every way. Adams wrote:

“That all men are born to equal rights is true. Every being has a right to his own, as clear, as moral, as sacred, as any other being has. . .  But to teach that all men are born with equal powers and faculties, to equal influence in society, to equal property and advantages through life, is as gross a fraud, as glaring an imposition on the credulity of the people, as ever was practiced by monks, by Druids, by Brahmins, by priests or the immortal Lama, or by the self-styled philosophers of the French Revolution.”

Nevertheless, there are some who insist that people do not have “equal rights” unless they have “equal things.” It is interesting that when the laws of men attempt to make people equal in ways they were not naturally intended to be, those laws violate one or more of the natural ways we are intended to be equal.

For example, if Steve has $10 and Rex has $20, and you wanted to make them equal in wealth, you will pass a law to force Rex to give $5 to Steve. Now they each have $15. Are they equal? Perhaps in money, but that law makes them unequal in their rights and under the law because Steve’s property ($10) was protected more than Rex’s property ($20). They are unequal under the law because the law favored Steve over Rex.

Steve was more than happy with this arrangement, to be sure; he just gained things. Did he lose his equality under the law and in his rights? Seemingly, no. What if Fred, who has $0, is introduced into the scenario, and the law requires that they be equal in things? In obedience to the law, Steve and Rex each give $5 to Fred. All three now have $10. They are equal in things, but Steve discovered that, although he temporarily gained things, because he was not equally protected in his rights and under the law, he lost his newly acquired property ($5). And how could he protest now when he did not protest from the beginning?

When we attempt to use force to make ourselves equal in ways nature did not intend for us to be equal, the penalty will be inequality in ways nature did intend for us to be equal.

Over two thousand years ago, Marcus Tullius Cicero attempted to save the Roman Republic from falling into an emperorship by pleading with his listeners to stay with natural law, as opposed to man-made ruler’s law. He explained man-made law should always conform to the laws of nature:

“True law is right reason in agreement with nature; it is of universal application, unchanging and everlasting; it summons to duty by its commands, and averts from wrongdoing by its prohibitions. . . It is a sin to try to alter this law, nor is it allowable to repeal any part of it, and it is impossible to abolish entirely. We cannot be freed from its obligations by senate or people, and we need not look outside ourselves for an expounder or interpreter of it. And there will not be different laws at Rome and Athens, or different laws now and in the future, but one eternal and unchangeable law will be valid for all nations and all times, and there will be one master and ruler, that is God, over us all, for he is the author of this law, its promulgator, and its enforcing judge. Whoever is disobedient is fleeing from himself and denying his human nature, and by reason of this very fact he will suffer the worst penalties, even if he escapes what is commonly considered punishment.”

Natural law “summons to duty by its commands.” If we are hungry, we work to obtain food. Hunger is the command – work is the duty. Natural law “averts from wrongdoing by its prohibitions.” We avoid eating poisonous foods because they will make us sick. Those simple absolutes are the same regardless of the year or century—irrespective of race or creed. And if we try to flee from it, we will suffer even more.

The Founders looked upon natural law as the governing force of the universe and everything within it. William Blackstone (1723 – 1780), the principal authority of English common law of that day, stated the generally accepted idea that when the universe came into existence, there were certain principles that controlled all matter. He went on to say that this orderly arrangement of the universe is called “the law of nature” and that there are laws for “human” nature just as surely as they exist for the rest of the universe. This is what Thomas Jefferson was referring to in the Declaration of Independence when he wrote: “…and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them….”

Blackstone further stated:

“Man, considered as a creature, must necessarily be subject to the laws of his Creator. . . This will of his Maker is called the law of nature. . . This law of nature, being coeval with mankind, and dictated by God, Himself, is of course superior in obligation to any other. It is binding over all the globe in all countries, and at all times: no human laws are of any validity, if contrary to this….”

In addition to Blackstone and Cicero’s comments about natural law’s consistency through all times and peoples, John Locke believed that humankind has an obligation to treat others equally according to natural law:

“The state of Nature has a law of Nature to govern it, which. . . teaches all mankind who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty or possessions; . . . And, being furnished with like faculties; sharing all in one community of Nature, there cannot be supposed any such subordination among us that may authorize us to destroy one another….”

If we desire stability in government and good human relations, we should consider natural laws first. The conditions are clear; if the laws of nature treat everyone equally, our civil laws should also treat everyone equally. Simply put, all laws should be for all the people all the time.

Written laws that exclude certain groups of people, laws that grant privileges exclusively to one group, laws that protect the rights of some but not others, or laws that take from some to give to others are a violation of the natural law of equality under the law. Those laws may seek to level the playing field in outcomes, but the result is a society where citizens are not equal under the law.

When the words “all men are created equal” were penned in 1776, society was certainly not living that truth. Fortunately, because they created a vision of what could be, we have come much closer to that ideal in our day. It is now up to us to carry that vision to fruition.