Written July 4, 2017. Happy Independence Day!
I’d like to look today at Thomas Jefferson’s well-known statement that “all men are created equal.” Some critics have said that this is the height of hypocrisy, coming as it does from a man who owned slaves, but I don’t think so. I think Jefferson was talking about something else entirely.
In this essay, I’d like to say what I think Jefferson was talking about and why I think that. I want to approach this text the way a biblical text might be approached by a careful scholar. We will have to start by keeping in mind who wrote it and to whom and for what purpose. We will give more weight to ways of construing the text that seem in line with Jefferson’s rhetorical needs and less to those that seem tangential.
The Wedding at Cana
Let’s take a simple example to illustrate this technique. In the Gospel of John, Jesus is represented as performing a series of actions that pointed beyond their plain meaning. For that reason, they are not called miracles; they are called “signs.”  That means that they point to some meaning beyond themselves. What they have in common is that they look at some major element of Jewish practice—we are going to be looking at the wedding at Cana for our example—and then declare it to be surpassed by the present ministry of Jesus. So each of the signs “means something” in the same way; they point beyond. The meanings themselves differ as the occasions differ.
John tells the story of the first of the signs in Chapter 2: Jesus goes with his family and his disciples to a wedding celebration in the nearby town of Cana. They run out of wine and Jesus provides more. The sommelier is ecstatic about the quality of the new wine, not knowing that a few moments ago it was just water.
It is a story that is much abused because it is easy to care more about what we want to have in the story than in what John needs to have in it. For John’s purposes, the crucial verse is 6, which reads:
There were six stone water jars standing there, meant for the ablutions that are customary among the Jews: each could hold twenty or thirty gallons.
I am going to be arguing, shortly, against several interpretations of Jefferson’s language in the Declaration on the grounds that they are “tangential” as opposed to “central.” They lead away, in other words, from the purpose of the argument. Let me introduce that notion by looking at some of the tangential interpretations of John 2.
- It was a miracle. This shows that Jesus was “divine” because he changed water into wine.
- It showed his break from family life. He rejects his mother’s request and requests absolutely the rationale she provides for it.
- It established a basis for the disciples’ belief in him because he “revealed his glory and his disciples believed in him.” (verse 11b)
I am calling those tangential. I am not arguing that they are mistaken; only that they don’t help John establish the point he is making. John has a use for this story and for this use, the central symbol is the six jars of water. All this water is necessary because “the Jews”  needed to ritually purify themselves. John’s point is that because of Jesus, all that water is superfluous. You can do something else with it, since you don’t need it for ritual ablutions. So why not turn it into some really superior wine?
The other interpretations “fly off on a tangent” rather than saying what the sign was and why it was important. That doesn’t make them wrong; it makes them superficial. We can be brought back into line by asking what John was trying to say.
The Declaration of Independence
The passage we are looking at today—the one that has the “all men are created equal” language—is part of a larger argument. I am asking you to give additional weight to interpretations of this much-debated phrase that support the main argument; that are not, in other words, tangential. Like John, Jefferson has a point he is trying to make and we would expect that the language he chooses would help him.
Here is the well known text.
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.
Just before that, Jefferson says;
“…a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.”
The argument Jefferson is about to make, in other words, is one that will be taken as cogent according to the “opinions of mankind,”—of Great Britain, France and Spain in particular. And he follows this up by building on John Locke’s theories about the social contract, so that he can say that the New World colonies are no longer bound by that contract.
So…what understanding of “all men are created equal” will help him make this point?
Jefferson wants to make the case that all mankind are bound by a “natural” contract to a legitimate authority. That is the condition of mankind in general and Jefferson will make no exceptional claim for the North American colonies. If the sovereign violates his side of the contract—which, according to Jefferson’s extensive accusations, King George III has done—then the colonies are freed from their part of the contract. Any people bound to a legitimate sovereign would be freed from the contract when the king shows himself to be a tyrant, and therefore not a legitimate ruler..
A phrasing that would have established this would have been that any “people” whose sovereign has violated the terms of the contract, is no longer bound by it. This is true of all peoples—it is true of the Dutch and the French and the Spanish, etc.—and it is just as true of the “Americans.”
It is not only the right of these peoples to throw off the yoke of tyranny, but it is their duty to do so.  This is true of all peoples—all collections of politically self-conscious people—so it is the general case. Someone arguing against Jefferson would have to argue that although it is true of mankind generally, it is not true of the British colonies in North America; or he would have to argue that Locke’s notions of contract were not valid even in their general sense.
This shows us that understanding Jefferson’s phrase “all men” to refer to “all peoples” moves his argument forward in a direct way. It is central, not tangential, to the argument. By contrast, thinking of “all men” as a comparison of individuals helps Jefferson not at all. There is no good reason, in fact, to think that Jefferson meant that.
The Gettysburg Address
There is every reason, on the other hand, to think that Lincoln meant exactly that. Lincoln made reference to Jefferson’s language in a way that Garry Wills (in an article in The Atlantic) calls “chicanery.” That might seem bold because Wills is a scholar as well as a journalist, but this is what the Chicago Times said at the time.
“The cheek of every American must tingle with shame as he reads the silly flat and dishwattery [sic] remarks of the man who has to be pointed out as the President of the United States. … Is Mr. Lincoln less refined than a savage? … It was a perversion of history so flagrant that the most extended charity cannot view it as otherwise than willful.”
The “perversion of history” the Chicago Times had in mind was Lincoln’s claim that “our fathers brought forth… a new nation… dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” The Times is complaining, in other words, that Lincoln has willfully misunderstood Jeffersons words—that is the burden of this essay—and has set this misunderstanding out as the fundamental interpretive framework of the Civil War.
Using the textual analysis we have used in the Gospel of John and in the Declaration of Independence, we can ask how this way of construing Jefferson’s claim would have benefitted Lincoln. In Lincoln’s case, it is almost an answer just to ask the question.
Lincoln has no use at all for the hypothetical equality of peoples, equally freed from their allegiance to a tyrant. What he needs is an understanding that puts white people and black people in the same scale—Lincoln had signed the Emancipation Proclamation in January of that year—and finds them to be equal in worth. It would be a violation of “Nature and Nature’s God,” to use Jefferson’s phrase, for one man to own another.
Lincoln could just have said that, of course, but what he really needed was an argument that America has always been about that. That was what our fathers meant when, “four score and seven years ago,” they brought forth a new nation—a nation dedicated to the proposition of equality. Not the equality of peoples, which is what Jefferson needed and what he meant, but the equality of persons, which is what Lincoln is saying the battle at Gettysburg was about.
Editorialists all over the country screamed, if not in the blunt prose of the Chicago Tribune, but people are not scholars. The idea that Jefferson meant something else seemed pale, when what Lincoln meant was so vitally present and so crucially important. What Lincoln said helped people make sense out of their world and the war was going to go on for another two years. What Jefferson meant, “back then,” is something for scholars to fight about after the Confederacy is defeated.
So it helps us, I think, to make the needs of the author central to debates about what he might have meant. For Jefferson, this principle aims “all men” in one direction; for Lincoln, it aims “all men” in another direction. Each of them knew what he was doing and I think we ought to grant them that.
 And the first part of John’s gospel, chapters 1:19—12:50, are often called “The Book of Signs.”
 John was written at a time of considerable conflict between the followers of Jesus in the Johannine tradition and the Jews of the post-Jerusalem period. As a result, John is at pains to emphasize every difference he can between Jesus and the religious setting in which he was raised. John’s use almost makes it sound as if Jesus was not a Jew, which he was.
 A good illustration of “tangential” would be an argument that paused here to say that Lincoln was asserting that man was “created.” It would be even worse to say that Lincoln stressed “created” to deal with Darwin, whose major theoretical work had been published only four years earlier.
 Here, Jefferson takes an entirely new step. The rights are specified by Locke’s social contract theory, but when we get to “duties,” we are entering a new territory. To whom would the duty be owed? “The laws of nature and of nature’s God” is pretty thin and that is the only plausible recipient of such a “duty.”