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Important quotes from Americans and America's friends on equality.

Essential Quotes

Declaration of Independence

“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. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” – From Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776

Abraham Lincoln

“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” – From “Gettysburg Address,” November 19, 1863

“All honor to Jefferson – to the man who, in the concrete pressure of a struggle for national independence by a single people, had the coolness, forecast, and capacity to introduce into a merely revolutionary document, an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times, and so to embalm it there, that today, and in all coming days, it shall be a rebuke and a stumbling block to the very harbingers of reappearing tyranny and oppression.” – From “Letter to Henry L. Pierce,” April 6, 1859

“I think the authors of that notable instrument intended to include all men, but they did not intend to declare all men equal in all respects. They did not mean to say all were equal in color, size, intellect, moral developments, or social capacity. They defined with tolerable distinctness, in what respects they did consider all men created equal-equal in ‘certain inalienable rights, among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.’ This they said, and this meant.” – From “Speech on the Dred Scott Decision,” June 26, 1857

“The assertion that ‘all men are created equal’ was of no practical use in effecting our separation from Great Britain; and it was placed in the Declaration, nor for that, but for future use. Its authors meant it to be, thank God, it is now proving itself, a stumbling block to those who in after times might seek to turn a free people back into the hateful paths of despotism.” – From “Speech on the Dred Scott Decision,” June 26, 1857

Calvin Coolidge

“It is often asserted that the world has made a great deal of progress since 1776, that we have had new thoughts and new experiences which have given us a great advance over the people of that day, and that we may therefore very well discard their conclusions for something more modern. But that reasoning can not be applied to this great charter. If all men are created equal, that is final. If they are endowed with inalienable rights, that is final. If governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, that is final. No advance, no progress can be made beyond these propositions. If anyone wishes to deny their truth or their soundness, the only direction in which he can proceed historically is not forward, but backward toward the time when there was no equality, no rights of the individual, no rule of the people.” – From “Speech on the 150th Anniversary of the Declaration of Independence,” July 5th, 1926

Alexis de Tocqueville

“There is in fact a manly and legitimate passion for equality that incites men to want all to be strong and esteemed. This passion tends to elevate the small to the rank of the great; but one also encounters a depraved taste for equality in the human heart that brings the weak to want to draw the strong to their level and that reduces men to preferring equality in servitude to inequality in freedom.” – From Democracy in America, Vol. 1, Part 1, Chapter 3, 1835

Quotes from the American Founding Era

Thomas Jefferson

“The natural aristocracy I consider as the most precious gift of nature for the instruction, the trusts, and government of society. And indeed it would have been inconsistent in creation to have formed man for the social state, and not to have provided virtue and wisdom enough to manage the concerns of the society. May we not even say that that form of government is the best which provides the most effectually for a pure selection of these natural aristoi into the offices of government? The artificial aristocracy is a mischievous ingredient in government, and provision should be made to prevent it's ascendancy.” – From “Letter to John Adams,” October 28, 1813

John Adams

“These sources of inequality, which are common to every people, and can never be altered by any, because they are founded in the constitution of nature; this natural aristocracy among mankind, has been dilated on, because it is a fact essential to be considered in the institution of a government. It forms a body of men which contains the greatest collection of virtues and abilities in a free government, is the brightest ornament and glory of the nation, and may always be made the greatest blessing of society, if it be judiciously managed in the constitution. But if this be not done, it is always the most dangerous; nay, it may be added, it never fails to be the destruction of the commonwealth.” – From “Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States,” 1787

James Wilson

“But however great the variety and inequality of men may be with regard to virtue, talents, taste, and acquirements; there is still one aspect, in which all men in society, previous to civil government, are equal. With regard to all, there is an equality in rights and in obligations; there is that ‘jus aequum,’ that equal law, in which the Romans placed true freedom. The natural rights and duties of man belong equally to all. Each forms a part of that great system, whose greatest interest and happiness are intended by all the laws of God and nature.” – From Lectures on Law, 1791

Abigail Adams

Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands. Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could. . . . That your sex are naturally tyrannical is a truth so thoroughly established as to admit of no dispute, but such of you as wish to be happy willingly give up the harsh title of master for the more tender and endearing one of friend. Why then, not put it out of the power of the vicious and the lawless to use us with cruelty and indignity with impunity. Men of Sense in all ages abhor those customs which treat us only as the vassals of your sex. Regard us then as Beings placed by providence under your protection and in imitation of the Supreme Being make use of that power only for our happiness.” – From “Letter to John Adams,” March 13, 1776

Quotes from Alexis de Tocqueville

Alexis de Tocqueville

“It is impossible to understand how equality will not in the end penetrate the political world as elsewhere. One cannot conceive of men eternally unequal among themselves on one point alone, equal on all others; they will therefore arrive in a given time at being equal on all. Now I know only two manners of making equality reign in the political world: rights must be given to each citizen or to no one. For people who have reached the same social state as the Anglo-Americans it is therefore very difficult to perceive a middle term between the sovereignty of all and the absolute power of one alone.” – From Democracy in America, Vol. 1, Part 1, Chapter 3, 1835

“What is taking place in the South of the Union seems to me at once the most horrible and the most natural consequence of slavery. When I see the order of nature reversed, when I hear humanity crying and struggling in vain under the laws, I avow that I cannot find the indignation to stigmatize the men of our day, authors of these outrages; but I gather all my hatred against those who, after more than a thousand years of equality, introduced servitude to into the world once again.” – From Democracy in America, Vol. 1, Part 1, Chapter 10, 1835

“I want to imagine with what new features despotism could be produced in the world: I see an innumerable crowd of like and equal men who revolve on themselves without repose, procuring the small and vulgar pleasures with which they fill their souls. Each of the, withdrawn and apart, is like a strange to the destiny of all the others; his children and his particular friends form the whole human species for him; as for dwelling with his fellow citizens, he is beside them, but he does not see them; he touches them and does not feel them; he exists only in himself and for himself alone, and if a family still remains for him, one can at least say that he no longer has a native country.” – From Democracy in America, Vol. 2, Part 4, Chapter 6, 1840

Quotes from the Civil War Era

Frederick Douglass

“Fellow Citizens, I am not wanting in respect for the fathers of this republic. The signers of the Declaration of Independence were brave men. They were great men too – great enough to give fame to a great age. It does not often happen to a nation to raise, at one time, such a number of truly great men. The point from which I am compelled to view them is not, certainly, the most favorable; and yet I cannot contemplate their great deeds with less than admiration. They were statesmen, patriots and heroes, and for the good they did, and the principles they contended for, I will unite with you to honor their memory.” – From “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” July 5, 1852

“What we now want is a country – a free country – a country nowhere saddened by the footprints of a single slaver – and nowhere cursed by the presence of a slaveholder. We want a country, and we are fighting for a country, which shall not brand the Declaration of Independence a lie. We want a country whose fundamental institutions we can proudly defend before the highest intelligence and civilizations of the age.” – From “The Mission of the War,” January 13th, 1864

“We say we are the equals of the whites? Are we? Are we at present the equals of whites? Equal before the law we are, equal at the ballot box we are, but we are far behind our white brethren. . . . What is our duty in view of that fact? It is to build up, is it not? It is to use the opportunities that we have for the improvement of our condition, for improving our intellect, for improving our manners, improving our order, improving our punctuality, and improving our integrity.” – From “Thoughts and Recollections of the Anti-Slavery Conflict

Abraham Lincoln

“If A. can prove, however conclusively, that he may, of right, enslave B – why may not B snatch the same argument, and prove equally, that he may enslave A? You say A is white, and B is black. It is color, then; the lighter, having the right to enslave the darker? Take care. By this rule, you are to be slave to the first man you meet, with a fairer skin than your own.” – From “Fragments on Slavery,” April 1, 1854

“If they look back through this history to trace their connection with those days by blood, they find they have none…but when they look through that old Declaration of Independence they find that those old men say that “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,” and then they feel that that moral sentiment taught in that day evidences their relation to those men, that it is the father of all moral principle in them, and that they have a right to claim it as though they were blood of the blood, and flesh of the flesh of the men who wrote that Declaration, and so they are. That is the electric cord in that Declaration that links the hearts of patriotic and liberty-loving men together, that will link those patriotic hearts as long as the love of freedom exists in the minds of men throughout the world.” – From “Speech at Chicago, Illinois,” July 10, 1858

Most governments have been based, practically, on the denial of the equal rights of men, as I have, in part, stated them; ours began, by affirming those rights. They said, some men are too ignorant, and vicious, to share in government. Possibly so, said we; and, by your system, you would always keep them ignorant and vicious. We proposed to give all a chance; and we expected the weak to grow stronger, the ignorant, wiser; and all better, and happier together. We made the experiment; and the fruit is before us. Look at it. Think of it.” – From “Speech Fragment on Slavery and American Government,” 1858-1859?

“I happen temporarily to occupy this big White House. I am a living witness that any one of your children may look to come here as my father’s child has. It is in order that each of you may have through this free government which we have enjoyed, an open field and fair chance for your industry, enterprise, and intelligence; that you may all have equal privileges in the race of life, with all its desirable human aspirations. It is for this the struggle should be maintained, that we may not lose our birthright—not only for one, but for two or three years. The nation is worth fighting for, to secure such an inestimable jewel.” – From “Speech to the 166th Ohio Regiment,” August 22, 1864

Alexander Stephens

“The prevailing ideas entertained by [Jefferson] and most of the leading statesmen at the time of the formation of the old constitution, were that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically. It was an evil they knew not well how to deal with, but the general opinion of the men of that day was that, somehow or other in the order of Providence, the institution would be evanescent and pass away. . . . Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error. It was a sandy foundation, and the government built upon it fell when the ‘storm came and the wind blew.’” – From “Cornerstone Speech,” March 21, 1861

Quotes from 20th Century Americans

Martin Luther King, Jr.

“When the architects of our Republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men – yes, black men as well as white men – would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” – From “I Have a Dream Speech,” August 28, 1963

Irving Kristol

“The founding fathers of modern bourgeois society (John Locke, say, or Thomas Jefferson) all assumed that biological inequalities among men – inequalities in intelligence, talent, abilities of all kinds – were not extreme, and therefore did not justify a society of hereditary privilege (of “two races,” as it were). This assumption we now know to be true, demonstrably true, as a matter of fact. Human talents and abilities, as measured, do tend to distribute themselves along a bell-shaped curve, with most people clustered around the middle, and with much smaller percentages at the lower and higher ends. That men are ‘created equal’ is not a myth or mere ideology – unless, of course, one interprets that phrase as literally, which would be patently absurd and was never the bourgeois intention.” – From “About Equality,” in Neoconservatism: An Autobiography of an Idea, 1972

Barack Obama

“What makes us exceptional – what makes us American – is our allegiance to an idea articulated in a declaration made more than two centuries ago: '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.' Today we continue a never-ending journey to bridge the meaning of those words with the realities of our time.” – From “Second Inaugural Address,” January 13, 2013

RealClear's American Civics portal explores the principles and practices every patriotic citizen should know.