Thomas Jefferson began life in a monarchy, under the reign of George II, in one of Britain’s North American colonies—Virginia. In this monarchical system everyone knew his or her place, with little expectation of being able to move very far outside of it. Though the American provincials were not on a par with the aristocrats in the mother country, they had developed their own version of hierarchy. Jefferson, by dint of his family ties, was born at the top, and there would have been no reason to suspect that he would ever come to be associated with the idea of equality. This is especially so given that he was born into a slave society, and his family fully participated in the institution of slavery. From an early age, he would have understood what unequal status meant, with his lifelong involvement in the most extreme version of it as a slave owner. The equality of humankind was simply not an expectation in his world.
Yet, as a young man inspired by the books he read that introduced him to the Enlightenment, Jefferson began the process of questioning these hierarchies and status-based power. As the crisis with Britain flared up, Jefferson questioned the power of the church (preferring the primacy of science and reason), as well as laws that entrenched the power of great families (entail and primogeniture) and the morality of slavery. He began to think of different ways of ordering society. There would be no assumption that a given class of people was born to rule. If there was to be an aristocracy, it would be one of talent, not birth. Ordinary people would have a say in how their government was to be constituted.
Jefferson’s vision of equality was not all-inclusive. Neither the enslaved nor women were part of it. Native peoples could be, but only if they agreed to assimilate with white people. Even though he produced eloquent denunciations of slavery, and he saw himself as a progressive on the question, he has been faulted for not working as hard for the freedom of African Americans as he did for that of white colonists. He also questioned the equal intellectual capacity of black people, and he never really contemplated the equality of women on terms satisfactory to us today. Even acknowledging all of that, we cannot ignore the transformative and bold words Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence: that it is “self-evident” that “all men are created equal.” Many people, enslaved and free, black and white, believed those words; believed they expressed their long-held intuitions and condemned the wrongness of the oppression they suffered. They were moved to act.
In the American Revolution, enslaved African Americans (and some free black people) joined the fighting on both sides, to vindicate their equal humanity. When they had the chance, they filed freedom suits arguing that the words proclaiming the equality of mankind made their enslavement illegal and unjust. Many African-American agitators—from Frederick Douglass to Martin Luther King Jr.—have pointed to the Declaration as a promise of equal citizenship. Indeed, many groups—women, immigrants, members of the LGBTQ community—have looked to the document to justify their claims to an equal place in American society.
With his stubborn support for the French Revolution, his calls to separate church and state, and his desire to expand the voting franchise among white men, Jefferson gained a reputation as a dangerous radical who would turn society over to a mob. His claims of equality frightened many in America.
In the months before he died in 1826, Jefferson reaffirmed the ideas expressed in the Declaration, whose meaning had long transcended its original purpose—announcing the break with Britain and the colonies’ determination to form a new nation. In a letter to Roger Weightman, declining an invitation to participate in a celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence because he was ill, Jefferson insisted that “all eyes are open, or opening, to the rights of man.” He also said he believed that the universal language of the Declaration would one day apply “to the world.”
Equality was the wave of the future.
This article is part of a special project about equality in America today. Read more about The March, TIME’s virtual reality re-creation of the 1963 March on Washington and sign up for TIME’s history newsletter for updates.
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