As most of us are aware, the Declaration of Independence was the document written largely by Thomas Jefferson and formally announced by him on July 4 1776. It declared the intention of the colonists of North America to separate from England and English rule and to form a new government. Whilst it formed the basis of the beginnings of what was to become the United States of America, many question the sincerity of some of its content and in particular the part in its preamble that declared all men to be equal. Hagerman (4 July 2011) examined that issue. How sincere was Jefferson when he made that statement, and what did it mean by “all men”? This paper considers the events leading up to the Declaration of Independence, its purposes and content, and explores further the true meanings of the “equality” statement.
Events Leading Up to the Declaration of Independence
Most accept that the primary reason for compiling and issuing the declaration was to announce the intention of the united colonies in North America to separate from English rule and to establish their own independent government and taxation system. But why did the colonists arrive at this position? Probably the major reasons originated from the French and Indian war fought between Britain and France through the years 1754 to 1763. As described by Kelly (n.d.) in his article “Declaration of Independence – Background” that war left Britain with considerable debts that they in part tried to recoup by increasing demands on the colonies. So, following the end of that war, legislation introduced by Britain included a Sugar Tax on sugar imports from the West Indies, a Currency Act to prohibit the colonies creating their own currency, and a Quartering Act that compelled colonists to accommodate and support British soldiers if the barracks were overcrowded. Then the Stamp Act of 1765 really angered the colonists. That Act required many documents and products to include stamps that had to be purchased. Even everyday items such as playing cards and newspapers came within the scope of the Stamp Act. This was also the first direct tax imposed by Britain on the colonies and caused a detailed “rights and grievances” statement to be sent to Britain, plus two secret organizations (the Sons of Liberty and the Daughters of Liberty) were formed to discourage purchasing British goods. Then the 1767 Townshend Acts created taxes that were to provide Britain’s colonial officials with an income source. When large scale smuggling was initiated to avoid these taxes, Britain positioned more troops in ports such as Boston, leading to numerous conflicts. As more Acts followed, including the Tea Act that led to the so-called Boston Tea Party, tensions mounted and in October 1774, all but one of the colonies met in Philadelphia for the “First Continental Congress” which called for a boycott of goods from Britain. Escalating violence preceded a second congress held in 1775 attended by representatives of all 13 colonies. Then King George III declared the colonies to be in rebellion and hired many mercenaries to move against them. Before long, most colonists saw little chance of reconciliation with Britain, and in June 1776 Jefferson and four others were appointed by the Continental Congress to draft the Declaration of Independence.
Essentially, the declaration comprised five parts. According to an article “Five Parts of the Declaration of Independence”, they were: Introduction, Preamble, Body Sections 1 and 2 (Indictment & Denunciation), and the Conclusion.
The Introduction paraphrased the reason for the creation of the declaration; i.e. the perceived need to split away from Britain, an act to which the colonists were claiming “the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them.” The Preamble contained the well-known “equality” statement, discussed further later in this paper, and stated the right and duty to remove the present government and provide a new one “to ensure their future security.” Section 1 of the body of the declaration detailed the grievances against King George III and his rule, described overall as: “a history of repeated injuries and usurpations.” Following are some examples of the grievances listed:
- “He has refused his assent to laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.”
- “He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their public records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.”
- “He has kept among us, in times of peace, standing armies without the consent of our legislature.”
- “He has plundered our seas, ravaged our coasts, burned our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.”
Section 2 of the body stated that efforts by the colonists to appeal against some of the King’s decisions had failed or been ignored, declaring the King to be “unfit to be the ruler of a free people”. Finally, the Conclusion part of the declaration stated that having itemized all of their grievances, the united 13 colonies declared their right to end all allegiance to the British Crown, to dissolve all political connections with Britain, and to obtain freedom and independence.
The “Equality Statement
Quoting Gardner (3 July 2011), the preamble section of the Declaration of Independence included the statement: “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.”
According to Hagerman, by “men” Jefferson did actually mean only males, and more specifically he meant “white men over the age of 21.” He intentionally did not include either women or children in that statement. Women in the colonies did not possess the same rights as their menfolk, and any rights of children were those that might be granted by their fathers.
Nor did that fine philosophical statement include men of other races such as Native Americans, who were – and only when it suited the whites in authority – almost equal but not quite. As for the large numbers of slaves owned by colonists (including Jefferson) and used as forced labor, they had few rights; their rights – if any – certainly did not include liberty, and it is very doubtful that they were able to enjoy “the pursuit of happiness” either.
According to Brundage (2012), Thomas Jefferson actually owned 200 slaves at the time he drafted the Declaration of Independence, and continued to own slaves for the rest of his life. Brundage claimed that most black people at the time had no status in society whatsoever and were regarded simply as property.
Because of events that preceded it, particularly the imposition from Britain of taxes and other measures that made life intolerable for the colonists, and were viewed by the majority as unjust and unjustified, it was perhaps inevitable that eventually they rose up against what they perceived as a harsh and tyrannical regime, which controlled all of their destinies from across the ocean. The Declaration of Independence was the result; the instrument that effectively ended British rule of their colonies in North America and created the basis for (eventually) the United States of America that exists today.
Brundage, M. “The meaning of Thomas Jefferson's phrase "all men are created equal".” (Updated 16 Nov 2012). Retrieved from
“Declaration of Independence: The Unanimous Declaration of the Thirteen United States of America.” (n.d.). Retrieved from
“Five Parts of the Declaration of Independence.” (n.d.). Retrieved from
Gardner, K. “The Philosophical Meaning and Greatness of the Declaration of Independence.” (3 July 2011). Retrieved from
Hagerman, M. “The Declaration of Independence declared all people are equal.” (4 July 2011). Retrieved from
Kelly, M. “Declaration of Independence – Background.” (n.d.). Retrieved from