On this July 4th let’s remember what is the founding credo and guiding principle upon which these United States are based:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.
Thomas Jefferson was a slaveholder when he wrote those words as were many other members of the Continental Congress; women did not have the right to vote or even hold property; and the Native American population wasn’t even on anyone’s radar as they sat on the brink of their forthcoming near-extinction by the country’s westward progress. So, sure, the words ring hollow at times for many reasons when you consider the full-breadth of American history.
But at the same time, those generations were products of their times and succeeding generations have held onto and continuously applied those words. The phrase framed the strongest arguments for early abolitionists and played a key role in Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address: “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” It was used in slightly modified form by Suffragette Elizabeth Cady Stanton and others who convened at the Seneca Falls Convention held in Seneca Falls, New York in July 1848, where they drafted and signed a document entitled the “Declaration of Sentiments.” The opening sentence states: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men and women are created equal.” More recently, Dr. King employed it in his speech at the Lincoln Memorial:
“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.”
The concept of basic equality for all was indeed revolutionary and hardly self evident in 1776. (Actually, Jefferson’s original phrase was “We hold these truths to be sacred” It was Ben Franklin who changed it to “self-evident”). In many ways it still is a revolutionary ideal not yet reached even here in the land where the phrase was first promulgated. While we have not yet created that Utopian society, we have come a long way in the 237 years that have passed since the Declaration of Independence was signed.
For me the phrase has greatest personal applicability in the courtroom. Often in trials, particularly criminal defense trials, I invoke the phrase in summation quoting directly of paraphrasing that great fictional American lawyer Atticus Finch from “To Kill a Mockingbird.” In his summation, he captures the nuances and limitations of the saying:
Thomas Jefferson once said that all men are created equal, a phrase that the government is fond of hurling at us. There is a tendency in this year of grace, 1935, for certain people to use that phrase out of context, to satisfy all conditions. We know that all men are not created equal in the sense that some people would have us believe. Some people are smarter than others, some people have more opportunity because they are born with it, some men have more money than others, and some people are more gifted than others. But there is one way in this country in which all men are created equal. An institution that makes a pauper the equal of a Rockefeller, the ignorant man the equal of any president, and the stupid man the equal of Einstein. That institution is the court. But a court is only as sound as its jury, and the jury is only as sound as the men who make it up.
In this brief passage, Atticus expresses the great potential and significant limit of the phrase. What he is telling the jury rings true today – unless we ourselves truly believe that all men are created equal and act in a manner that establishes that equality, the words of Thomas Jefferson are mere toothless platitudes. We have plenty of laws in place and a court system ready to operate but if the men and women who preside over it or serve in it as jurors are not interested in providing a level playing field, then the words don’t matter.
Remember that next time you get a jury summons!