Before the Declaration of Independence enumerates the basic human rights that are unalienable, it states that “All men are created equal.”
As a British critic of that time put it, that does not seem to be the truth in the world that we actually live in. Some people are tall, some are small; some are brilliant, some have ordinary intelligence; some are healthy, some are not; there are differences of gender and of ethnicity, of wealth and social circle; of taste and ability; of time, place, and family.
No matter what the distinctions may be as humanity develops and differentiates into many individuals, each with their unique lives, we are all equal with respect to our ultimate origin.
The truth of the statement is put in context by the words that follow — we are all equally endowed by our Creator with certain rights — specifically, the right to live, the right to be free in our persons, and the right to own and exchange property.
It may be that by the choices we make, we could have a long life, or the opposite. Our choices could similarly preserve and expand our liberty or undermine it, preserve and expand our wealth or squander it. The end result of our lives will exhibit the widest range of differences. But with respect to our origins, there is equality.
To be clear, we are not overlooking that some are born into wealth and social standing, and others not. “Origins” here is meant in a more fundamental way.
In setting up this new system of government under which we live, equality was expressed in all citizens being equally sovereigns of the American state. Special classes of political entitlement were abolished by the Constitution, which allowed no king or any title of nobility.
But this is still not the most fundamental sense of “origins.” For the contention is that there is a source that endows us with our rights. Thus, though these rights are foundational to our political state and in theory to all political states, it is because of a fundamental equality that stems directly from the Endower of our rights.
That source would be known to all who were biblically literate, as were most Americans of those days who had any literacy at all. The text is where the Bible itself deals with origins, the Book of Genesis, and within that book, the very first chapter: “And G-d created Man in His image.”
What is that divine image in which the human being was created, according to Genesis?
Perhaps the most important assertion the Five Books of Moses make about God is unity — God is one. Here, too, the text tells us of the creation of a single human being as the ancestor of us all.
English and Dutch republican thinkers at the dawn of Western democracy were deeply familiar with the rabbinic tradition on the foundations of law as the rabbis applied biblical principles to actual practical governance of a nation. One of the rabbinic texts most often cited by them is Tractate Sanhedrin from the Talmud. There we find the following texts:
The human being was created as single and unique so as to prevent clans from feuding with each other. That we find feuding clans anyway should lead us to imagine how much the worse it would be had two or more humans been created at the outset….
For this reason was man created as single and unique — for the sake of peace between humankind, so that one person should not say to his fellow: My father was greater than yours.
No matter what the distinctions may be as humanity develops and differentiates into many individuals, each with their unique lives, we are all equal with respect to our ultimate origin. It is in contemplation of that source that we find equality.
The genius of the Sanhedrin texts is that they portray this absolute equality of mankind not as something that requires a totalitarian fear of human individuality, but rather, that which allows us to be free and unique individuals while still belonging to a whole and peaceful nation and world. In the language of the text there again:
Therefore, the human being was created singular and unique … for thus it demonstrates the greatness of the blessed Holy One. For whereas when man stamps many coins from one die, each one is an exact replica of the other, the Supreme King of Kings, the blessed Holy One stamped every person with the die of Adam yet no two are exactly the same.
“Equality” is tossed about a great deal, but if one is really seeking to impose uniformity and equal misery, in obedience not to citizen sovereigns but some canonized doctrine, then one has missed the deepest and best meaning of equality. The Founders, though, got that deeper meaning. We all come from one source. We are equally granted the rights to life, to liberty, and to property and are equally sovereigns of our land. The genius of understanding equality within difference is that it empowers each person to bring the full power of his or her unique and freely realized gifts to bear in peace, coordination, and harmony.
The realization of this fundamental concept of equality is what has unleashed the greatest and most widespread prosperity the world has ever known. Even more, it points the way to a wholeness in which the success of each other person is a part of our own success, a triumph of the common heritage of all humankind, and the realization of the divine confidence in our ability to see that His vison of a very good world should be fulfilled.