Jefferson lives: The founder was a slave owner & jerk, but his words in the Declaration still matter

“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.”

Ah, yes. That sentence that those slave owners wrote back when women were barely — barely — second-class citizens and members of the LGBTQ community were less than that.

With democracy under threat here and abroad, it’s important that we still remember how to drink those words in, and think about what they meant and what they still mean.

But have you ever really thought about what Thomas Jefferson was saying when he wrote that passage, which the Continental Congress signed onto word-for-word when they fired off that not-so-instant message to King George III?

It says nothing those in the Enlightenment movement of Western Europe weren’t already discussing. The thing is, no one had written it down in those exact terms. The magic of good writing is that it can provide precision to concepts.

As much as one sentence can, that one line changed history. There’s an interesting historical look at the mechanism of the Declaration of Independence but its meaning is as much about how people took it than what the founders intended. The way people read that passage changed everything.

Want to know why half of Malmo, Sweden, emigrated to the United States in the late 19th century? Consult that sentence. Want to know why the rest of the world cuts America slack even when we act exactly like every other hegemonic superpower that has ever existed? It’s the promise of that sentence. Want to know why the world isn’t ruled by kings and dukes anymore? It’s Enlightenment best expressed by that sentence.

I’m exaggerating some, for effect. Yes, there are local conditions and regional heroes that fought for liberation all over the world. But Americans shouldn’t deny our heritage, rooted in that sentence, which did more to liberate humanity than any other words ever written.

I’m immediately going to hear push back, and readers are going to resist because the framers were all white men, some of whom owned other human beings and that the United States wasn’t a democracy until the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. Women — a majority of the population right now — were expressly not included in that sentence, and still don’t have firmly established equal rights in this country.

True, but beside the point.

What the Framers did with their declaration was blow up the original Big Lie that Western Europe had organized itself around since the fall of Rome. Namely, that some people are just born superior to other people, and the law should reflect it.

White men declaring their equality to other white men turned out to be the thunderclap that started the avalanche. After that, a Black transgender atheist disabled person’s day in the sun became inevitable. Are we there yet? Of course not. But we’re on a path that grows ever-more wide.

America itself has been described as an idea or an experiment. I’m coming more to think of it as a vector. It is a ever-widening movement through spacetime toward justice.

Some progressives today like to argue that because there has never been a moment of maximum justice, American history is an absolute failure. I like the urgency, but boy do they miss the context.

And it all started with a sentence written nearly 250 years ago. Let’s really look at it.

What do you mean ‘we’?

The first word is “We.” We hold these truths …

The “we” in question were — at best — upper-middle class. The signers of the Declaration of Independence were somewhat successful but not genetically extraordinary. Josiah Bartlett was a doctor (and he kind of looks like Martin Sheen). Robert Morris was described as the country’s first billionaire and he ended up in a debtors’ prison. Edward Rutlege was the “Oxford-educated” child of wealthy plantation owners but he was just a high-end lawyer.

Sam Adams was the guy at every Board of Supes meeting who has something to say. Paul Revere was a silversmith. None of the would have been billionaires in today’s dollars and a lot of them were pedestrian. 

They were just comfortable enough to have enough to lose to make it highly risky for these glorified provincial proles to send a treasonous letter to King George III. Parliament was responsible for many of the complaints but it was dominated by the rich and nobility. British society was still saturated in the idea of one class’ superiority to the other.

Kings were kind of on their way out as a political power, but monarchs were still believed to be anointed by God to lord over the people.

Addressing a letter to Parliament is one thing. Addressing it to the king is another. They chose to send it to a king because they were taking a big swing at history.

Who the hell were these yankee doodles to tell a king anything?

‘Hold these truths to be self-evident’

Wow. The age of reason was a philosophical time when truths were typically proven with proofs and theorems. 

Not in this case. No, the provincial hicks were declaring a self-evident truth the line that would follow. They weren’t going to debate it. They needn’t argue it. They didn’t have to defend it. It was a fact like the sun rising in the East.

Boy, this better be something obvious and in “deeply rooted in our history and traditions,” right?

‘That all men are created equal…’


The entire organizing structure of what the Proud Boys like to call “Western civilization” was predicated on exactly the opposite. There were the nobles, born of better elements, and the many who were kind of human in a vague lesser sort of way. 

The idea was starting to be challenged in the parlors and salons across Europe but it was more like a drunken voice huddle on Slack (but in person). It was some crazy stuff to say but nothing to provide the organizing principle of a new government  … I mean, not when they sobered up.

Europe was what today be described as “liberty curious” but with the understanding that no one was going to get too crazy declare everyone equal.

The Levellers posited that crazy idea but that radical 17th century group got put down hard by Oliver Cromwell and didn’t come roaring back. 

There was the Bill of Rights of 1689 that was an English precursor to the Declaration but the authors of that law weren’t going to level the field that much.

The British were moving slowly toward a day when all were legally free and equal but they were in no way ready to declare it. Kings were giving up power, taking it back and having it taken from them.

The Brits were somewhat justified in doubting the wisdom of the people’s self-governance. Pretty much any time a king died without a clear heir, all hell broke loose. I’m talking about the Anarchy of Stephen and Matilda, the War of the Roses, the whole Mary and Elizabeth thing. When monarchs were temporarily deposed under Cromwell, the country was ruled by religious zealots and a loyal military.

(I’m back and forth between “Brits” and “English” because of the 1707
establishment of the Kingdom of Great Britain, formally uniting England
and Scotland. Now the Scots — who established the principle that even kings rule with the consent of their subjects in the 1320 Declaration of Arbroath — are talking about independence again.)

The rest of Europe was a mixed bag at best. Sweden prides itself on a history of equality but in 1776, they were moving in the opposite direction, having abandoned the Enlightenment after the Coup of Gustav III in favor of absolute monarchy.

But here came a handful of wackadoodle colonial commoners declaring the equality of men was beyond debate. What kind of tobacco were they smoking?

‘And are endowed by their creator…’

… certain unalienable rights.”

The word isn’t “inalienable.” It’s “unalienable, (sounds like unaleenable).” It means no one — not neighbor, sovereign or clergy — can put a lien upon those rights.

That’s hanging it out over the edge.

What they were saying to a bunch of European nobles (and one in particular) is that kings didn’t grant rights and law didn’t grant rights. The fact of your creation embeds those rights within you.

From here on out, the White Male Patriarchy is just doomed. 

If our equality and our rights are granted to all by creation, then every male of the species has them for eternity: Black, white, gay, straight, cis, non-binary … and because they are all created equal, they all must be treated equally under the law. Plus, the law must protect the rights that follow in the sentence.

And by the way, once you established men’s equality under the law,  the obviousness that women were equal members of the species was just going to keep smashing guys in the face. Yes, it took 144 years for women to get the vote but in the scope of human history, that’s an eye blink.

‘And that among these…’

The framers were careful not to limit rights by listing the most important. They were telling George III, “the people have rights, they don’t even have to tell you about.”

The insults just kept coming.

‘Are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness…’

Finishing the sentence we can read the full thought: “We backwater hicks stand equal to any king on a throne and it’s blindingly obvious that our very creation means we exist for our own individual glory and not the glory of a Britain, a king or the Lord Jehovah.”

I mean … you almost have to make a choking sound as your body convulses just to process the extent of the socio-political blasphemy written by Jefferson.

America is a bet on the human endeavor itself.

But the best part was still to come. The colonies secured independence. People started flocking drawn by that sales pitch (if not the backtracking and second-guessing established with the U.S. Constitution). The world came here to cash in on the American raison d’etre.

The world wasn’t sending its best. We got some second sons of titled nobility but for the most part, this country was built by the global urchin class.

By the prevailing wisdom of the time, the U.S. should have imploded by 1820. 18th century theory held that the people as a mass are ignorant. The transition of power in full democracy is too arbitrary. That kind of government and society couldn’t work. Humanity needs the superior-bred wisdom of the Fourth Earl of Puffenstuff and the Twelfth Duke of Snobbyscratch to guide it.

Instead, millions of hicks, provincials, laborers, farmers and servants and slaves came to here and made America historically unequaled in terms of economy, culture and military reach. And there’s that founding principle at the heart of it all.

Why wouldn’t the rest of the world have looked at us and asked their lords and rulers “Why don’t we get some?”

The American experience has flowed from that single, foundational sentence written by Thomas Jefferson and edited by Ben Franklin.

How do you make it happen?

Jefforson had an answer that follows: 

“That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

If everyone is equal, the government must treat everyone equally and for that to happen, the government must report equally to everyone it governs.

The government is a subject of the people. The people aren’t subjects of a crown.

I’ve gone on and will continue to expound on the threat to democracy. I’m not going to rehash it here except to say that what Americans is a promise we have insisted on passing down through the generations — even if that promise isn’t always kept. The Revolution continues so long as it resonates and doesn’t get stale in the retelling.

Hey, the human endeavor is messy and so is American history. This country has failed to live up to what Jefferson wrote (as did Jefferson himself). Educate yourself about the extent to which this country has violated our founding principles to cruelly persecute African Americans, Native peoples, Asians and other people of color, generations of new immigrants, the LGBTQ community and women from every segment of society.

Those truths, those facts are not dangerous. Ignorance is what is dangerous.

But it’s also dangerous to be ignorant of Jeffersonian principles or the degree to which they set in motion this national experiment. Ask the Ukrainians about their importance.

American history is a bit of a hero’s journey. People fight for expanding justice by overcoming obstacles — they don’t give up and jump on Instagram or make a TikTok. Apathy is also dangerous.

Just pretend somebody who isn’t a middle-class straight cis white dude wrote the line (with a modern tweak): “We hold these truths to be self-evident the each member of the whole of humanity is created equal and is endowed by its creator certain unalienable rights, and among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

If it strikes you as dull, it’s because you’ve heard it before. Take some time to come to grips with it, because the world is still dealing with the fireworks it set off.

The American experiment remains hard work. Right now, its very existence is being challenged by those who’d rather we just give up and allow authoritarianism to hold sway. The foundations of our democracy are being undermined. I say, let’s get busy and not give up the fight to make things even better.