The most famous words in the most famous political document in history appear, like rolling thunder before the storm, right at the beginning: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal. . .” This is the Jeffersonian creed, the proposition on which, according to Lincoln, our nation was conceived. It’s the moral and political seed that sprouted into America.
That it is a self-evident falsehood can be safely disregarded. I will never match equations with Stephen Hawkins or home runs with David Ortiz. The divergence and inequalities among my three children alone never cease to astound me; in a country of 300 million, competitive to the core, the inequalities — in wealth, health, strength, talent, beauty, and every conceivable category — are literally and visibly beyond counting.
But the Founders never claimed we were identical. They possessed, in spades, the American respect for competitive success. Most of them, as Gordon Wood has shown, were first-generation “gentlemen,” who had risen, by education and moral training, to become part of a “natural aristocracy.” This was as true of Jefferson as of John Adams — both lived long enough to decry an age in which public opinion, rather than character, was king.
The “self-evident truth” of the Declaration held the American people to be, in some mysterious fashion, equal. In part this meant equality under the law, intended as a moral break with the self-indulgent blue-bloods who ruled Britain and its colonies. These were impostors, false aristocrats. Even the most Federalist of the Founders, like Hamilton, loathed inherited privileges.
Before the law, the multifarious differences between Americans become null, and we stand, intrinsically, as equals. Breaches in this ideal need not concern us here — no human ideal can ever be fully achieved. The question is whether this is the only sense in which equality is necessary to our freedom and moral well-being.
Given the enormous fuss made about political and economic equality (see here for a debunking of the latter), most of us would be hard put to credit a merely legal application of the term. In fact, equality often appears as a good in itself. The French have enshrined it in their republican trinity. The assumption of programs such as affirmative action is that all identifiable groups must be equally represented everywhere.
We are never quite sure whether we’re talking about equal opportunity or equal outcomes, and we are never quite sure just when government power can rightfully be used to impose equality on activities which, if left untamed, will produce winners and losers. Tracing this boundary has been the content of liberal democratic politics for the last century.
Equality, however, is an old republican principle, harking back to classical Greece. It arose out of the fear that big men would usurp the power of the commonwealth, and milk it for private profit. That was a fact of experience, not an abstract theory, among the Greeks.
The solution veered in one of two directions. The Athenians, avid pursuers of excellence, saw equality as a matter of fairness in the rules of competition: no citizen was too humble to hold office, and none was too rich to escape service. Here’s Pericles, reflecting on the Athenian way of life in his famous Funeral Oration: “But while there exists equal justice to all and alike in their private disputes, the claim of excellence is also recognized; and when a citizen is in any way distinguished, he is preferred to the public service, not as a matter of privilege, but as the reward of merit.”
The Spartans, who craved order above all things, regulated every aspect of life, including marriage and the economy, to impose narrow limits on the behavior of rich and poor alike. Spartan citizens called themselves “the Equals.” They were given land by the state. Kings fought alongside commoners. All worshipped the law of Sparta, happily killed for it, and willingly died for it.
But they paid a brutal price. It is important to note this, because from Plato’s day to Lenin’s, Sparta was held up to be the virtuous ideal of a controlled, consciously imposed equality. The Spartans were relatively equal, but they were wholly unfree in any modern sense of the word. Like good Germans, they obeyed orders. They lacked moral standing as individuals. Commerce and art were forbidden. Citizens led narrow, miserable, pain-filled lives, measured entirely in abnegation and self-brutalization.
That is the tradeoff, universally: freedom for equality. Either the individual is allowed to compete under equal rules, or he will be pounded into conformity by the jealousy of neighbors and the power of the state.
Should the limits of our freedom be determined by fear of big men? That’s surely not what the Founders meant by equality. Jefferson, whose almost perverse optimism has been imprinted in the American character, thought the nation would avoid the problem by relying on a citizenry of small farmers. We became a nation of entrepreneurs and billionaires instead. Yet this development would have seemed natural to Hamilton, who maintained that tying the nation’s future to the ambitions of its great achievers would ensure both the persistence of the United States and the willingness of its big men to play by the rules.
But suppose powerful men did try to bend the rules to their profit. What could stop them?
James Madison, co-author with Hamilton of the Federalist Papers, had a highly original answer: other powerful men. Madison worried about “factions” that would destroy the nation with their selfish squabbles. The causes of faction, Madison wrote, were “sown into the fabric of human nature.” The state could crush such natural striving, Spartan-like, by brute force and repression.
But if freedom was chosen, then one could only control the effects. In a populous republic like the United States, with a large electorate and a system of divided government, “factious leaders,” Madison argued, will be checked by others of their kind, with opposite interests: fairness in political play will be maintained by a kind of dynamic tension, driven by a multiplicity of ambitions.
The Founding Fathers showed little interest in the ideal of political equality. Anyone who doubts this should reflect on the institutions of the Senate and the Supreme Court. The Founders were even less taken with economic equality — considering it, at least in the case of Hamilton, a positive evil.
The self-evident truth of the Declaration was a statement about a citizen’s inalienable moral worth and dignity. Despite all the classical references, this principle came from an entirely different tradition, the Christian doctrine of natural rights.
The Jeffersonian faith proclaims that none of us can judge the potential greatness of another, and that we must all be as free of interference as social life permits, to accumulate each our successes and failures, our good deeds and bad. The first part of this proposition is in truth self-evident: only by our actions are we revealed to others. The second part — the demand for the greatest possible freedom from government meddling in our lives — has been described by some as visionary and proven correct by history, but by others as a naive invitation to those “factious leaders” despised by Madison to pervert and exploit the political game.
Which side commands the better arguments is a question for another day.