“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.”
Those words from the Declaration of Independence are probably the most famous words ever written about human rights.
The history of the concept involved originates with John Locke, an English philosopher and physician, who lived from 1632 to 1704. It was his writings that influenced Thomas Jefferson to include them in the Declaration, but Benjamin Franklin is credited with giving them their final form in his proofreading of Jefferson’s draft.
Locke is said to have derived the concept that we are all created equal from Genesis 1:26-28. He reasoned that because each one of us is created in the image of God, we are all therefore equally free.
Including that statement in the Declaration had earth-shattering repercussions in that if you establish a country based on such a concept, it quickly becomes impossible to justify the institution of slavery in that country.
Just seven years after the Declaration was signed, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts held that the use of a nearly identical phrase in its Constitution effectively made slavery illegal in that state. By 1790, there were no slaves in Massachusetts.
You may well point out that Jefferson himself (along with many other signers of the Declaration) owned slaves. But what you may not know is what Jefferson wrote in his first draft of the Declaration:
"[H]e [the king of Britain] has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life & liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. This piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the CHRISTIAN king of Great Britain determined to keep open a market where MEN should be bought & sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce: and that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them, by murdering the people upon whom he also obtruded them; thus paying off former crimes committed against the liberties of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another."
Jefferson is also known to have written that slavery was an "abominable crime," a "moral depravity," a "hideous blot," and a "fatal stain" on the country's honor.
So, why was this cut from the final version of the Declaration?
Well, certainly slavery was a powerful economic force in the Deep South, so there was the economic aspect. The point can also be made that the first and foremost intent of the document was to declare independence from Britain, not to start an abolitionist movement, nor to divide the newly-formed union of states.
Also, slavery as a human institution had existed as a normal part of every-day life for thousands and thousands of years. While Jefferson and many others opposed it, they rightly knew that it was not something that could be eradicated overnight.
Looking back at it now, over two centuries later, it may seem like they were hypocritical, but I see God’s hand in it.
While the anti-slavery paragraph was cut, the concept that all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights stayed in the document and formed a country that was based on freedom.
We were about freedom. Liberty was our defining concept.
And, as such, we were a country that could not and would not continue to count some men as property of other men.
It was antithetical to our core beliefs, it was wrong, and the Declaration of Independence clearly made it un-American.
And let us not forget that the Abolitionist Movement to abolish slavery was a Christian movement that gained momentum from English and American Quakers right around the time the Declaration was signed.
All of the northern states of the newly-formed United States of America abolished slavery within thirty years of the signing of the Declaration.
The United States banned international trade in slaves in 1807.
The Abolitionist movement continued to grow and build until, in 1861, the American Civil War broke out.
It was the bloodiest war we have ever fought.
More Americans—of both races—died in the Civil War than all other wars combined.
It was devastating and the effects, good and bad, last to this day.
All of this occurred before I was born, before my father was born, before my grandfather was born, even before my great-grandfather was born.
But that document that declares that all men are created equal continues to unashamedly and defiantly make its point in the face of the evil that would subjugate one man to another.
That concept of freedom was so powerful and contagious that slavery is no longer legal in any part of the world.
Yes slavery does still exist as human trafficking (with an estimated 29.8 million people affected) which shows that we can never stop fighting evil.
But given that slavery existed since before the dawn of written history, its demise as a legal institution is a miracle --and God clearly gets the glory for it.
Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. 1 Peter 2:16 ESV