What Did Equality Mean for the Founders?

What Did Equality Mean for the Founders?

The Egalitarians

Three new books on the founders explore the critical, if often contested, role equality has played in shaping the American imagination


Donald Trump almost never utters the words “liberty” or “equality.” With little fanfare, he has abandoned perhaps the two most traditional and aspirational touchstones of American political life. By way of contrast, Barack Obama, in his final address, reminded us that previous American presidents routinely used public occasions to draw straight lines, as he himself did, to those key words of the 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.” Obama even went the distance on this occasion to link these phrases back to the Enlightenment and forward to the struggle for civil rights and African-American freedom. But in his short time in office, Trump has thrown out this entire script, right along with the conventional history lesson behind it. 

With Trump at the lectern, what we get instead are references to deal-making, money, and a temporally unspecific kind of national greatness associated with being “tremendous” and, always, “a winner.” This entrepreneurial jargon is then mixed with words and images intended to stoke anger and fear. Trump has a taste for terms like “stupid,” “dangerous,” “carnage,” and “swamp,” which he mainly uses to emphasize the distance between our former strength and the dilapidated America of today. It is not that the new president has exactly given up on the power of words as forms of action. He has, however, introduced us to a startlingly different vocabulary with which to take stock of the world around us. This is surely a revolutionary idiom—just not the one we’ve been living with most of the time since 1776.

So what does the new Trumpian language mean for our political future? And, more pointedly, what are its implications for our long-term investment in the story of liberty, equality, and the founding of the nation? Those who study history for a living generally make lousy prognosticators. But three new books on the era of the founders provide an answer to that second question. Richard D. Brown’s Self-Evident Truths, Danielle Allen’s Our Declaration, and Luke Mayville’s John Adams and the Fear of American Oligarchy explore the critical, if endlessly fraught, role of equality and inequality in shaping the American political imagination. And though this might seem a dated concern given how thoroughly the ground has shifted since these books were completed, in fact, all three seem newly relevant. For collectively, if not necessarily intentionally, they make a strong case for keeping our old-time—and freshly counter-hegemonic—political idiom alive in these strange new times.

In Self-Evident Truths, Richard D. Brown gives us a clear, albeit conventional, account of the first nine decades of American history after 1776 as a series of struggles over the promise and limits of equality. The tensions within the Declaration itself are given relatively short shrift in this story. So are the framers’ motives. Brown’s focus is on the gap between the rhetoric—the “aspirations,” as he calls them, laid out in the text’s most famous lines—and lived reality in the new United States.

As Brown sees it, the Declaration handed Americans a kind of yardstick against which to measure their burgeoning nation. The opening to the second paragraph announced that, when it came to the law, all men should be considered equal, regardless of wealth or rank, and nation-states should be judged according to their compliance with this basic principle. Who precisely those “men” were was not spelled out. But the words that followed were widely understood to mean equal opportunities to prosper and, arguably, to participate in the political process. And as such, the Declaration opened a can of worms, since the articulation of these radical ideas occurred in a context of obvious social and economic inequality.

In this historian’s telling, much of the political strife in America’s early decades revolved around struggles by various distinct and disfavored constituencies—religious minorities, people of color, women, foreigners, the poor, and others who might well not have seen themselves in these collective-identity terms in the 18th or early 19th centuries—to win recognition of their “natural rights” in these unequal conditions. Early national history becomes here the discontinuous story of each of these constituencies’ efforts to turn the rhetorical promise embedded in the Declaration to its own advantage. Sometimes, as in the case of religious minorities, we get familiar narratives of legislators battling it out on the floors of various statehouses, crafting state constitutions and bills of rights that gradually “stripp[ed] away most sectarian and Christian privileges.” At other times, Brown gives detailed accounts of obscure exchanges in early courtrooms that follow less obvious rights-based struggles, especially for women and the poor.

Brown is relatively inattentive to the precise language in which these demands and counterdemands were made, leaving one to wonder when the Declaration was explicitly and effectively weaponized in these struggles and when it was not. We also hear little about what he calls “expressions of political ideas from the lower social tiers”—that is, about popular movements like street protests, rebellions, and riots where actions generally counted more than word choices. This is unfortunate in a history organized around struggles for recognition by disfavored social groups. Still, readers are left with a persuasive picture of pre–Civil War society as riven by a wide variety of formal arguments over not just the legitimacy of slavery but the meaning and reach of equality in the United States at large.

So what did all this agitating and strife amount to in the decades leading to the Civil War? Brown’s own verdict is that, especially in the immediate aftermath of the Revolution, many Americans saw modest but still substantive gains in equality. A gradual shift toward imagining the citizen as an individual rather than a property owner or taxpayer helped pave the way, for example, for universal male suffrage as well as an end to debtors’ prisons.

Yet Brown also takes pains to point out that these advances were always uneven and never took place in a linear fashion. Contemporary prejudices and old habits of thought—beliefs that, say, women were weak and irresponsible, black people lazy, immigrants dangerous—endured. Some of these assumptions even hardened over time as the idea of “nature” was marshalled to justify not just the recognition of rights but also existing hierarchies in American society.

Moreover, talk of legal equality was discovered to be an effective fig leaf in legitimizing other, more entrenched forms of inequality, including everyday racial, class, and gender advantages. This meant that improvement in status for some—such as poor white men of varied nationalities and faiths—came at the expense of others, namely women and people of color. (Brown notes that when New Jersey formally denied women and free blacks the right to the franchise in 1807, reversing previous policy, there was no protest at all.) The answers to basic questions about who held rights and what those rights entailed remained in flux for generations after the Revolution, even as these disputes laid the groundwork for future progress.

The principal and lasting problem, according to Brown, was that the founders—in their attachment to a “right” to accumulate and hold private property as a precondition for personal and political liberty—refused to imagine anything like economic equality, or what philosophers now call “equality of outcomes.” Even the lower standard of “equality of opportunity,” or meritocracy, was rendered impossible by the founders’ insistence on heritable property, which is another way of saying material inequality from the get-go.
Brown does not claim that this made the drafters of the Declaration cynics or hypocrites; the Declaration, coupled with the subsequent decision to render primogeniture and a titled nobility defunct, represented a sincere effort on their part to inculcate republican values without completely overturning the social and economic order. However, in Brown’s telling, these same framers left Americans with a permanent structural paradox. The Civil War may have finally solved the problem of chattel slavery, where the contradiction between natural-rights language, on the one hand, and the idea of property rights, on the other, was most blatant. But a deep American attachment to private property and its unequal distribution has created all sorts of lasting impediments to claims of equality. It has also, as Brown only notes in passing, kept the focus of American political life far away from what are sometimes called “positive” or “social” rights, such as a right to food, shelter, or, indeed, health care.

Brown ends up staking out a position consistent with that of the historian Jack P. Greene and, earlier, Alexis de Tocqueville, who in different ways insisted that, from the start, American democracy went hand in hand with exclusion and informal aristocracy. Brown tries to give this finding a slightly sunnier tone by suggesting that, for those playing a long game, “arguably, equal rights doctrine has tilted the United States toward social equality.” Considering the vast disparities in income and access to political power that have developed over the last half-century, you might not close this book altogether convinced. In this view, liberty, as defined in 18th-century America and even by its most inspiring texts, all but ensures the preservation of various kinds of stratification and inequality, too.

Political theorists Danielle Allen and Luke Mayville beg to differ. Allen wants us to reread, as carefully as possible, every word and punctuation mark in the Declaration of Independence, no matter how hackneyed or seemingly minor, in an effort to absorb its full message. Then she wants us to repurpose the text—much as Susan B. Anthony and the other early women’s-rights advocates did in 1848, and the abolitionist Frederick Douglass did in 1852—with an eye to its possibilities for revitalizing democracy in the 21st century. She is convinced that, for the framers, the idea of equality was fully consistent with the notion of liberty. Or, as she puts it, equality is “the single bond that makes us a community, that makes us a people with the capacity to be free collectively and individually in the first place.”

Allen is able to make this argument about the primacy of equality, as well as its compatibility with liberty, because of the broad and multipurpose meaning that she gives to the concept within the form and structure of the Declaration. Equality, for Allen, is not limited to a guarantee of equal freedom from domination. Instead, her favored term takes on a variety of richer resonances. It stands for a shared opportunity to use the powers of government in pursuit of communal as well as individual liberty and happiness. It means a recognition of our equal ability to judge—and to judge in concert—what actions would further this goal. And, finally, it entails something akin to co-creation, a matter of recognizing and experiencing reciprocity through language.

Our Declaration is part professorial 
explication de texte, part affecting memoir, and part populist call to arms. It is also a love letter to English prose, and it is no accident that Allen, who writes beautifully herself, begins the book with a discussion of language and democratic empowerment. Ultimately, she wants all of us to build a more intimate relationship with the language of democratic politics and, in particular, with the language of the Declaration.

As such, American history both anchors Allen’s narrative and is somewhat beside the point. She acknowledges that it matters that the Declaration was a statement about liberty and equality written by well-educated white men, many of them, like Thomas Jefferson, owners of enslaved human beings. But she also insists, only somewhat convincingly, that the framers viewed their enterprise as a collective one, drawing on elements of Philadelphia’s wider community as they put the text together, and that they meant for their claims about liberty and equality to apply to many more people than themselves, even if not to all people. Allen works hard, in other words, to give Jefferson and company the benefit of the doubt, just as she wills a kind of optimism about human capacity into her own message. 

At the same time, she also pushes back against the current scholarly demand for deep contextualization, suggesting that history can serve to distance us from the text and from each other, even as it can increase understanding. In the end, she knows she is on stronger ground when she sets history partly to the side and treats the Declaration as a timeless source of moral and political vocabulary that we, whoever “we” might be, can still make use of—and in greatly enhanced ways.

But what of material inequality, then and now, for which Brown claims the Declaration has no answer? Here Allen has little to say, either. It remains hard to determine if reciprocity and community-building are meant, in her vision, to be a substitute for or a complement to redistributive policies aimed at creating greater economic equality. In a rare moment in the text when she offers an explicit policy suggestion, Allen ventures that a good starting point for reversing growing inequality in America would be to change the housing and zoning laws that segregate by income and ethnicity. That suggestion, however, stands in isolation. Nothing else on economic inequality—including, say, on wages or taxes—comes up. And without any effort to redress this growing problem in American life, it is hard to know what social solidarity could really mean in practice. What’s clear is simply that Allen dreams of a political culture that revolves around a very different set of values than those associated today with markets. Her essential point, inspired by her deep reading of the Declaration, is that without some basic notion of democratic community, civil liberties—including even the libertarian’s cherished right to pursue individual happiness—remain hollow.

Luke Mayville, author of John Adams and the Fear of American Oligarchy, does not disagree that the founders still have something to teach us about the institutionalization of equality. But rather than turn to the Jeffersonian tradition and the Declaration of Independence, Mayville urges us in this slim volume to take another look at the public and private writings of Jefferson’s greatest ideological opponent, John Adams. For Mayville believes that Adams took up this question in a way that is especially relevant for our own inegalitarian moment.

Adams, a Federalist, is most often portrayed as the young republic’s great defender of aristocracy, a man from a fairly humble background who became the arch anti-egalitarian of his age. Mayville hopes to correct that reading. He argues that Adams presciently grasped something about democracy that Jefferson and his anti-Federalist allies missed: that vast inequality in wealth would produce, even in the absence of hereditary titles, a version of aristocracy every bit as threatening to the workings of a democratic republic as an actual nobility. Extremes of poverty and riches would end up distorting any attempt at the realization of liberty, equality, and self-rule. 

Mayville is most interested, though, in the unexpected grounds on which Adams made this case. According to Mayville, what worried Adams—and what has led so many commentators (starting with his contemporaries) to misread his motives—was not that the rich would use their money to purchase power, as today’s foes of Citizens United and super PACs see happening all around us. Rather, Adams, who was deeply taken with Scottish moral philosophy, fretted that the less-well-off would, for psychological reasons, hand their wealthier counterparts more power than they deserved. Even as the French Revolution was gaining steam in the early 1790s, Adams remained convinced that the grip of wealth on the human mind, not least in a commercial republic, would produce a kind of admiration and even sympathy for the rich and beautiful compatible with what Mayville calls “soft oligarchy.” This is a judgment that seems especially apt in light of the popularity of a particular billionaire president who has managed to represent himself as both a role model worthy of envy and the tribune of 
ordinary Americans. 

But Mayville’s Adams offers us almost no palliative. His favored solution was honorary societies and special titles for those who made important contributions to civic or artistic culture—hierarchical inventions intended to redirect the common people’s instincts toward the emulation of their superiors in virtue and talent rather than in money alone. This is a project that Mayville tries, against the odds, to defend as worth taking seriously. Mainly it reveals Adams’s failure of imagination: He rejected suffrage or political education as effective means of achieving greater equality from the bottom up. Yet he also showed little interest in any form of redistribution starting at the top, either during one’s life or after death, perhaps because he saw economic inequality as natural from the start.

What we come to realize through these new readings of our 18th-century past is that the nation’s founders left us with few ideas for any way out of Brown’s structural and Adams’s psychological conundrum. Some 240-plus years later, we continue to witness increases in political and civil equality on a national level and an ever-larger wealth and income gap between the top and the bottom. Oxfam reported this year that just eight men—six of them Americans—now own the same amount of wealth as the poorer half of the world’s population, or 3.6 billion people, put together. In this context, one can’t help but wonder if equality, in concert with rights and liberties, is even a viable starting point from which to address our needs, locally or globally.

Indeed, as I write, just a short while into the Trump presidency, we might well ask if this whole Lockean vocabulary has finally been rendered obsolete, a victim of its own internal weaknesses and a changing world. Trump’s personal language recalls a lowbrow Hobbes, imagining a war of all against all without his strongman help, rather than a more familiar Locke, whose influence hovers over this early debate about equality, liberty, and property. Even the intellectual history we have long used in order to bulk up our sense of purpose could (pace Allen) be said to have run its course. According to some historians today, it is high time that the myth of American government as the concrete realization of Enlightenment aspirations toward liberty and equality be recognized for what it really is: an invention of Cold War American exceptionalism, not historical truth at all.

And yet there are compelling reasons offered by all three books not to give up now on either our living connections to our foundational story or our traditional (i.e., revolutionary) protest vernacular, with its promise of liberty and equality for all. As Brown makes clear, there have always been those—albeit generally not in the White House—who would have us reject the language of equal rights precisely because of the explosive possibility of the aspirations to which it gives voice. Brown cites naysayers, including Loyalists and slave owners going all the way back to the framing of the Declaration, who insisted (as would Edmund Burke shortly thereafter) that all this abstract talk about equality and liberty wasn’t only misleading in the context of various forms of concrete inequality and unfreedom; it was also potentially dangerous because of the ideas and expectations that it was liable to conjure up but not fulfill. And therein lies its potential power still.

Because talk of equality and liberty attaches the American idea of democracy to a long-term promise—even if it’s a seemingly unobtainable one, given social and economic circumstances—this idiom has, as many equal-rights advocates have discovered over the previous few centuries, an exceptional power to push the course of history at least partly toward justice. To resist the new Trumpian status quo, we undoubtedly need to harness its force once again. One goal of speaking in terms of equality now would be to counter the apparent triumphs of both libertarianism and authoritarianism—that is, to make all of us think again not only about who deserves rights, but what rights we all deserve. Another goal would be to draw disparate peoples together as a united front or oppositional mass movement. For surely this too, as Allen rightly notes, was a key purpose of the Declaration of Independence, that great founding model of resistance.

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