The Meaning of Human Equality, Part I: Abraham Lincoln’s Interpretation of the Phrase “All Men are Created Equal”

Abraham Lincoln

What the Phrase Means

On 26 June 1857, in Springfield, IL., Abraham Lincoln explained the meaning of the phrase “all men are created equal,” after listening to a speech by Senator Stephen Douglas in which he excluded Blacks from its meaning. But according to Lincoln, “the authors of that notable instrument intended to include all men.” For Lincoln, then, all humans, regardless of their color or gender, have equally the same nature, namely, a human nature. In other words, they are equal in being humans. In short, Lincoln’s interpretation of the phrase is inclusive, while Douglas’ is exclusive.

Then Lincoln goes on to say, according to a reading of the context of the Declaration of Independence itself, that it

“defined with tolerable distinctness, in what respects they did consider all men created equal — equal in ‘certain inalienable rights, among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.’ This they said, and this meant.”

 In fact, a little over a year later, in his Seventh Debate with Stephen Douglas on 15 October 1858, Lincoln reaffirmed that the phrase “all men are created equal” refers to all human beings, not just Whites.

What the Phrase Does Not Mean

On 26 June 1857, Lincoln proceeds to explain what “created equal” does not mean, saying,

“they did not intend to declare all men equal in all respects. They did not mean to say all were equal in color, size, intellect, moral developments, or social capacity.”

For example, in a foot-race, the person who is faster than I is superior to me as a runner. However, he or she is not superior to me as a human being. Similarly, a person who is smarter than I is superior to me in intelligence. However, that person is not more human than I.

Also, as Lincoln observes, equality does not mean that human beings must be the same in all respects. Although my neighbor and I are equally human beings, his or her color may not be the same as mine. That, however, does not make him or her inferior to me as a person. Rather, it only means that he or she is different from me.

Lincoln realized that the abstract or general meaning of “all men are created equal” is different from its concrete, particular, historical meaning, which a government often fails to live up to its treatment of its citizens. Thus, Lincoln says that the authors of the Declaration

“did not mean to assert the obvious untruth, that all were then actually enjoying that equality, nor yet, that they were about to confer it immediately upon them. In fact, they had no power to confer such a boon. They meant simply to declare the right, so that the enforcement of it might follow as fast as circumstances should permit. They meant to set up a standard maxim for free society, which should be familiar to all, and revered by all; constantly looked to, constantly labored for, and even though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated, and thereby constantly spreading and deepening its influence, and augmenting the happiness and value of life to all people of all colors everywhere.”

The phrase “all men are created equal,” then, applies, as Lincoln says, “to people of all colors everywhere.” Unfortunately, not a few Founders of the United States failed to live up to the Declaration’s words. Thomas Jefferson himself, for example, who was primarily responsible for writing the Declaration, owned slaves. But the failure of the Founders does not mean that the words “all men are created equal” are not true. Rather, it means that its words, through a political process, must be enacted and enforced by the government.

In other words, while the meaning of “all men are created equal” does not change, it must be applied, as Lincoln asserts, to new historical circumstances, such as the one in which he found himself in 1857, namely, slavery. Hence, he says,

“The assertion that ‘all men are created equal’ was of no practical use in effecting our separation from Great Britain; and it was placed in the Declaration, not for that, but for future use.”

For example, after the American Civil War, Congress adopted the Thirteenth (1865), Fourteenth (1868) and Fifteenth (1870) Amendments to the Constitution of the United States of America. The Thirteenth, adopted before President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, abolished slavery in the United States; the Fourteenth recognized that Blacks or former slaves, being born or naturalized in the United States are American citizens; and the Fifteenth recognized they have the right to vote. Those three amendments are the political, legal and practical application of the truth that “all men are created equal.”