In the prior section and independent of my argument on Jefferson’s first draft of his Declaration, I have shown that Jefferson observed there to be a rough sense of human equality while living in Colonial America, which did not have the social stratification of European countries. Yet the Colonists embraced the institution of slavery, where people, Whites and Blacks, were indentured for fixed periods or for life, so there was some sense of stratification. Did Jefferson believe that slaves were not equals of non-slaves?

The abuses Jefferson limns in his original draft of the Declaration are many, at least 24, and he lists last and devotes the most ink, 168 words, to introduction of slavery into the colonies:

he [King George III] has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating it’s 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, & 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.

We note Jefferson’s use of capital letters for the word men. Nowhere else in his draft does he do use capitals. That shows unequivocally that Jefferson considered slaves as men, not as chattel, and that argues decisively against the naïve view, articulated by too many in the secondary literature, that the Declaration was not meant to include Blacks, who were the lion’s share of the slaves at the time imported into the Colonies. Slaves, Blacks among them, qua men, are deserving of the same axial rights as all other men.[1]

Yet what precisely does Jefferson mean concerning the at-birth equality of all persons? What does he mean by “equal creation?”

One way to understand the term is pragmatically and politically. There are no reasons to see constitutional differences in people at birth. The children of the wealthy and wellborn are constitutionally indistinct, or relatively so, from those of who are not, but they have opportunities that others do not have, among them, readier access to medical care. Level the playing field by affording equality of opportunities through, for instance, change of inheritance laws and educational reforms, then the children of those not wealthy or wellborn will perform as well as those of the wealthy and wellborn, so thinks Jefferson. That is a matter of creating equality of opportunity—a historical or empirical notion. It realizes, says John Smith, the differences between persons—e.g., talents, prior social status, education, and wealth—and seeks to “neutralize these differences by providing a homogeneity of living conditions within which everyone will have an equal opportunity in relation to everyone else to pursue his own well being”[2]—what is tantamount to positive liberty. Jefferson’s efforts to reform the laws of Virginia, undertaken in 1776, shows manifestly a commitment to equality of opportunity. That is what I mean when I write elsewhere, “Jefferson’s assertion of the equality of all persons is not a categorical truth, known to be true by the light of intuition, but one of many claims whose truth or untruth would be brought to light by the success or failure of the great political experiment he was proposing.”[3]

Yet equality of opportunity is reasonable only if it is warranted—viz., it can be shown that all are deserving of it. If there is no sense in which persons are at-birth equals of all others, then what is the point of creating a climate of equality of opportunity?

Scholar John Smith has an answer: equality of status—a philosophical notion. It recognizes that each human, considered qua human, is deserving of equal status in personhood and citizenship.[4] The equality of the “Declaration” is chiefly equality of status, though Jefferson’s great experiment is also, to some extent, about creating equality of opportunity.

Equality of status seems reasonable, yet one might fairly ask these questions: What is “status” and why are people, for Jefferson, deserving of equality of status? On account of what, precisely, are humans deserving of equality of status—that is, equal rights?

“Status,” of course, refers to the standing (e.g., natural, social, or political) of one person vis-à-vis all others. What sort of status have all persons to enable them to deserve equality of opportunity? Smith sidesteps that question.

Thomas Kidd proffers a theological solution: the Argument from Divine Creation. Jefferson and others of the Enlightenment of his day believed in a created world, which of course implies a creator. Sums Kidd, “Equality by creation, because it was so widely assumed, was the most powerful basis on which to argue for equal rights. For observers such as Jefferson, equality by creation did not mean equality of condition or talents. It did mean that all people had basic dignity before God, because all people were created ‘in God’s image,’ as Genesis puts it.”[5] In sum:

1) All people were created in God’s image.

2) Those created in God’s image had basic dignity before God.

3) So, people had basic dignity before God.

4) That basic dignity is warrant for equal rights.

5) So, all people are deserving of equal rights.

Jefferson, of course, nowhere assents to humans being created in God’s image. He would have found that notion laughably absurd. So, the argument is unavailing.

Yet let us examine a weaker, more viable sense of this Argument from Divine Creation:

1) God created all humans.

2) All humans have a God-given essence that distinguishes them from and makes them superior to other beings.

3) That God-given essence makes each the equal of all other humans.

4) So, that essence entitles them to equal rights.

The pitfall of this argument is that Jefferson did not think that humans occupied a privileged position in the cosmos, though they were unique in possession of rationality. The reason for this I shall shortly show.

We are left to consider an even weaker version of the Argument from Divine Creation:

1) God created all humans.

2) All humans have a God-given essence that distinguishes them from other beings.

3) That God-given essence makes each the equal of all other humans.

4) So, that essence entitles them to equal rights.

The nodus with this “Weakest” Argument from Divine Creation is that premise 3 merely begs the question. One needs only to plug in mosquitos or puffins for humans and work on assumption that God created all things that exist to see that the argument is a non-sequitur. One might certainly object that fleas have a right to happiness, conditioned on a choice of a certain manner of living. One might even object that the mosquito, situated and nibbling on my forearm, has a right to life. One wants to know what it is about humans, distinct from all other animals, that makes them and only them deserving of equal rights.

Nonetheless, the answer, for Jefferson, is perhaps not so difficult.

All persons, except for freaks, are born with a moral sense, capable of perceiving or feeling right action in a set of circumstances. He writes to nephew Peter Carr (10 Aug. 1787):

He who made us would have been a pitiful bungler, if he had made the rules of our moral conduct a matter of science. For one man of science, there are thousands who are not. What would have become of them? Man was destined for society. His morality, therefore, was to be formed to this object. He was endowed with a sense of right and wrong, merely relative to this. This sense is as much a part of his nature, as the sense of hearing, seeing, feeling; it is the true foundation of morality, and not the … truth, &c., as fanciful writers have imagined. The moral sense, or conscience, is as much a part of man as his leg or arm. It is given to all human beings in a stronger or weaker degree, as force of members is given them in a greater or less degree. It may be strengthened by exercise, as may any particular limb of the body.

The existence at birth of a moral sense is not to say that all persons immediately can see the right thing to do, prior to doing it. Children at birth see, but they do not know what they see until they interact with objects of perception and are schooled by others who have been seeing much longer. It is likely the same with the moral sense, which needs cultivation over time.

The moral sense also needs maturation through exposure to a wide variety of experiences over time. A comparison with vision is aidful. A person who has spent his life in a hot Caribbean climate will be taken aback when he, visiting a friend in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, first sees snow, though he has often seen pictures of it. Seeing snow for the first time also involves, for instance, feeling the cold on one’s skin and intake of cold air into one’s lungs. Thus, moral maturation demands moral exposure to events of varied sorts. A person, thus, who has much experience of varied cultures will be in the best position to perceive morally correct action. He will at least understand why persons in some cultures are moral laggards. That shows that reason, to some extent, does come into play.

The moral sense also needs coaxing over time, for humans are disposed to laziness. One can perceive that something is the right thing to do, but be disinclined to do it, because one is slothful and the right thing to do requires effort and expense. To donate a pint of blood when many people need blood requires that one transports oneself to a donation center, and one might merely be too slothful to do that. One might also not be disposed, for the nonce, to leave oneself minus a pint of blood.

And so, Jefferson’s statement of the at-birth equality of all people, construed as a conditional claim, has moral support in Jefferson’s eyes. Jefferson believes all persons are at-birth moral equals inasmuch as the moral sense at birth is given to all in the same way that seeing or hearing is given to all.[6] Each person, consequently, has the same at-birth capacity for moral discernment, given proper maturation.[7]

Does at-birth possession of a moral sense make humans unique in the cosmos—special to the creator?

There is a fly in the ointment. To John Adams (14 Oct. 1816), Jefferson writes: “I believe that [the moral sense] is instinct, and innate, that the moral sense is as much a part of our constitution as that of feeling, seeing, or hearing; as a wise creator must have seen to be necessary in an animal destined to live in society.” The appendage, “in an animal destined to live in society,” is troublesome. It makes it probable that all social animals—vertebrates such as puffins, penguins, bats, crows, hominids, elephants, dolphins, horses, lions, and hyenas, and invertebrates such as ants, bees, termites, and wasps—because of their sociability, have their own sense of “morality,” species specific.[8] That is not such a ludicrous claim, if we consider that the moral faculty for humans is sensory, not rational. If so, then morality is something about the physical make-up of certain types of social animals that explains their sociability, not something God gave only to humans to segregate them from other animals.

On this reading, does that mean that all social animals, equipped with some sense of morality to suit their species, are deserving of rights?

The human moral sense, for Jefferson, is unique among social creatures. As Jefferson says in his 1820 letter to Adams (Aug. 15), humans, through their moral sense, feel or perceive God, and it is doubtful that Jefferson thought the same about the “moral” sensibility of other social creatures, like penguins. Thus, through moral sensitivity, humans have a cosmic connectivity that other social creatures likely do not. Humans too also possess the rudiments of rationality: e.g., the capacity to read, write, and calculate. In both ways, humans are unique among social creatures, and deserving equal rights.


[1] It has typically gone unnoticed that often when Jefferson rails against the institution of slavery, he does not make it an issue of color (race), as is always done today. Note, e.g., his argument against slavery in Query XVIII of his Notes on Virginia. He argues against men oppressing men, not Whites oppressing Blacks.

[2] John Smith, “Philosophical Ideas Behind the ‘Declaration of Independence,’” in Revue Internationale de Philosophia, Vol. 31, 1977: 374–75.

[3] M. Andrew Holowchak, Dutiful Correspondent: Philosophical Essays on Thomas Jefferson (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2013), 32.

[4] John Smith, “Philosophical Ideas Behind the ‘Declaration of Independence,’” 375.

[5] Thomas Kidd, Thomas Jefferson: A Biography of Spirit and Flesh (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2022), 54.

[6] TJ to Thomas Law, 13 June 1814, and TJ to Peter Carr, 10 Aug. 1787.

[7] Jefferson, however, did not think that persons are in any sense at-birth equals vis-à-vis talents and ambition. That much is obvious by experience. Yet he did seek to neutralize those differences by providing equal living conditions based on possession of a certain minimal amount of property for each citizen so that each person could live pursuant to his own needs. Hence, he mandated that each Virginian should have 50 acres of property in his proposed constitution for Virginia to promote opportunities for all Virginians and he proposed a certain friendly infrastructure for the fledgling country in his Second Inaugural Address. Thomas Jefferson, Draft Constitution for Virginia and Second Inaugural Address, The Scholar’s Thomas Jefferson: Vital Writings of a Vital American, ed. M. Andrew Holowchak (Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars, 2021), 16–26 and 57–63.

[8] M. Andrew Holowchak, “Did Jefferson Think Humans Occupied a Privileged Position in the Cosmos,” Thirty-Six More Short Essays, Plus Another, on the Probing Mind of Thomas Jefferson (Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars, 2020), 88.

M. Andrew Holowchak

M. Andrew Holowchak, Ph.D., is a professor of philosophy and history, who taught at institutions such as University of Pittsburgh, University of Michigan, and Rutgers University, Camden. He is editor of Journal of Thomas Jefferson and His Time and author/editor of over 65 books and over 275 published essays on topics such as ethics, ancient philosophy, science, psychoanalysis, and critical thinking. His current research is on Thomas Jefferson—he is acknowledged by many scholars to be the world’s foremost authority—and has published over 200 essays and 27 books on Jefferson. He also has numerous videos and a weekly series with Donna Vitak, titled “One Work, Five Questions,” on Jefferson on YouTube. He can be reached at [email protected]


  • William Quinton Platt III says:

    “…he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us,…”

    The Christian king of Great Britain makes the same mistake (is as confused on the issue of the treatment of slaves) as the yankees four score and seven years later. There were no slave uprisings during the four years of total war committed against the South where millions of men lost tens of thousands of arms on battlefields far and wide, the carnage policed mainly by black slaves themselves.

    Intuitively, the slaves knew they had it better in the New World than in Africa…or perhaps, if we would just take the time to read the thousands of slave narratives available on the interwebs…we would find they really didn’t have it bad at all.

    Thank you for your excellent work.

  • Dr. Mark Holowchak says:

    You are very welcome, William.

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