On a farm field that had been witness to some of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln took to the podium to deliver the Gettysburg Address, a speech that would arguably become one of the greatest in the English language. Lincoln began his short remarks commemorating the opening of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery by speaking of the United States as a nation “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” With these words, Lincoln harkened back to the words of the Declaration of Independence.
The Declaration of Independence’s famous second paragraph begins with the “self-evident” truth “that all men are created equal.” Self-evident simply means that something is true without any prior demonstration. The abundance of tyrannical regimes, past and present, from Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union to North Korea, shows clearly that self-evident does not mean obvious. The Declaration thus teaches that the truth of equality is embedded within the definition of the term “mankind.”
What did the American Founders mean by equality? Were only white, landowning males considered equal? Was the idea that “all men are created equal” a “self-evident lie,” to use the words Senator John Petit of Illinois uttered in the decade before the Civil War?
Equality as expressed by the American people encompasses a truth about human beings. Whatever differences exist among people such as race, religion, class, or sex, men and women are naturally free and independent. Since men and women hold this freedom by nature—that is, even in the absence of government—they do not have a right to rule another without that person’s consent.
Politically speaking, there are no natural rulers among human beings