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Jeffersonian Ambiguity

September 19, 2010

In his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. references the most famous line of the Declaration of Independence, “All men are created equal,” as a means of arguing that the “world is in dire need of creative extremism.” However, after centuries of scrutiny, most historians still fail to validate what Thomas Jefferson actually meant when inserting this phrase into our nation’s founding document. No disrespect to Mr. Jefferson, but the phrase that “All men are created equal” was written in such a vague manner that it is open to a vast array of varying interpretation, ranging from the most general, to the most extreme. Just what DOES it really mean? Let us consider the possibilities.

The generally held notion of this phrase is that humans are equal with respect to human rights- the right to equal treatment under the law, but what if it was intended to mean more? The variance in interpretation is largely based on where the emphasis is placed in the term. For example, if it is read that “All men are created Equal,” then it would mean what is stated above and that everyone is entitled to the same privilege, ability, opportunity and social status. However, if it is interpreted as “All men are Created equal,” then the intent is to state that all men are equal at birth, and that men seperate themselves by the actions they take part in over the course of their life. If the emphasis is placed on “Men” in the statement, then it could be considered that only male humans are equal, and that women are inferior. Certainly this cannot be true, but ambiguity allows this interpretation to be just as valid as any other.

Perhaps the statement was intended to describe John Locke’s theories of right to rule, whereas every man had an equal right to rule over others, rather than ruling by birthright. The statement could also be intended to incorporate Locke’s theory of property, which suggests that all land is mutually owned by men.

This statement could be interpreted as a socialist manifesto, or simply a safeguard against racial, sexual, and other forms of discrimination. Clearly, the key to making Jefferson’s statement relevant in our society today lies in the interpretation. In fact, a number of political and social leaders have utilized the ambiguity to suit their argument and agenda. Dr. King himself utilized this quotation not only in his famous letter, but also in the “I Have a Dream” speech, using it as a means of defending racial equality. In his Gettysburg Address, President Lincoln references the statement to defend his argument against slavery and the notion that no man can rule over and own another.

At the end of the day, the question that we all face is whether Mr. Jefferson left the statement vague by accident, or whether,  in his wisdom, he established an eternal safeguard that was ambiguous enough to defend against any new form of discrimination and inequality that may occur during the lifetime of his country. Whatever the original intent was, there is no doubt that this small quotation has served as a powerful asset of justice throughout the history of the United States.

One Comment
  1. Amani permalink
    September 19, 2010 6:40 PM

    I really enjoyed reading your post. I never considered the many interpretations to ” all men are created equal”. When talking about the word equal, yes everyone is untiled to the ” same privilege, ability, opportunity and social status”, but is every individual given these rights. Being untiled to something and being given something are two different things. This goes back to the word “men” when Jefferson says this does he mean only men and not women like you stated, or both? If we were too look at how men and women are today, we would see that in many situations women are not treated as equal as men.

    When it comes to the workplace a lot of times men are paid more than women, even though the women may be in a higher working position than the men. Also, sometimes a woman can be in a lot better standing than a man but the man would be hired over the woman. Now ask your self is this “equal”?

    I totally agree that ” all men are created equal” was left completely vague by Jefferson. Why he did is still a complete mystery to me, but like you stated “Whatever the original intent was, there is no doubt that this small quotation has served as a powerful asset of justice throughout the history of the United States”. I agree it has in many ways, and the United States has been through a lot to get to the place where they are now, but I would stay we haven’t received full justice yet.

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