How did our founders get the idea that all men were created equal?

Genesis 1:27

No other document in American history has more profoundly shaped our nation’s sense of identity than the Declaration of Independence. Not only did our founding fathers declare independence from Great Britain with it, but the reasons they gave to legitimize such a radical declaration later came to shape our nation in the years to come.

One line in that declaration holds such gravitas that we Americans find our hearts stirred anew every time we hear it: “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.” Neither the man who originally penned those words nor many of our founders succeeded to live fully up to those words. Nevertheless, the profundity of those words helped shape governance and jurisprudence in the infant years of our country.

But where did our founders get that idea that “all men are created equal” and that this truth was “self-evident”? One well-known rabbi said: “The striking thing about this sentence is that ‘these truths’ are anything but self-evident. Most societies at most times have held as self-evidently true that we are created unequal. […] Plato held that society was stratified into three classes: guardians (philosopher-kings), auxiliaries (soldiers), and the rest; and that whether or not these distinctions were given by birth, people should be taught that they were. Aristotle believed that some people were born to be slaves. Gradations of class were written into the structure of reality. The strong, powerful, wealthy, and highborn were meant (whether by nature or by God) to exercise supremacy over others.” Neither would Nietzsche nor the Hindu caste system hold the truth that all men are created equal to be self-evident.

Our founders only held this truth to be self-evident because they had been steeped, for many generations, in a culture shaped by a doctrinal truth revealed in the Bible. Some of the most revolutionary words in all the world come from the Bible: “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” (Genesis 1:27) God stamped every human life with his image; thus, God endowed every human life with equal worth and dignity. People exhibit inequalities in many ways (e.g., strength, intelligence). But God declares we are all equal in dignity. It takes a very strong authority speaking in clear terms to uphold such a truth and push against the tendency in humanity to hold some lives in higher regard than others, whether explicitly like Aristotle or implicitly through common practice or prejudice.

The formation of our country owes much to the Bible. Many of our founders lived as children during the First Great Awakening. Their minds and hearts were profoundly shaped by the Bible. Even the deists among them could not help thinking biblically about reality. The trajectory of our nation was all the better for the Biblical truths that directed it.

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