Jefferson knew this. He was asserting human equality of a special kind. Human beings, he was claiming, are moral equals. They don’t all behave equally well, but each of their lives has a moral worth no greater and no less than that of any other. According to this strange doctrine, the worth of a street sweeper on the streets of Philadelphia was as great as that of Jefferson himself. Each life is valuable, and no one’s life is more valuable than another’s.

The preciousness and equal worth of every human life is a Christian idea. Christians have always believed that God places infinite value on each human life He creates and thatHe loves each person equally. In Christianity you are not saved through your family or tribe or city. Salvation is an individual matter. Moreover, God has a “vocation” or calling for every one of us, a divine plan for each of our lives. During the Reformation, Martin Luther stressed the individualism of the Christian journey. Not only are we each judged as individuals at the end of our lives, but throughout our lives we also relate to God as indi- viduals. Even religious truth is not just handed down to us but is worked out through individual study and prayer. These ideas have had momentous consequences.

We are often told that modern notions of democracy and equal rights trace back to ancient Greece and Rome, but the American founders were not so sure. Alexander Hamilton wrote that it would be “as ridiculous to seek for models in the simple ages of Greece and Rome as it would be to go in quest of them among the Hottentots and Laplanders.” In The Federalist we read that the classical idea of liberty decreed “to the same citizens the hemlock on one day and statues on the next…. Had every Athenian citizen been a Socrates, every Athenian assembly would still have been a mob.” While the ancients had direct democracy, supported by large-scale slavery, we have something quite different: representative democracy, with full citizenship and the franchise extended in principle to all. Let us try to understand how this great change came about.