On Equality

The people and government of the United States continue to have a profound interest in human equality. The legitimacy of our government depends on human equality, the equal right of all to live with dignity.

In the political philosophy of the Declaration of Independence, equality is not the end of government but its foundation. In the logical sequence of the Declaration’s argument, human equality is primary, the bedrock on which rest the basic rights possessed equally by all humans. Government is merely instrumental, the mechanism through which those rights are protected for all.

The specific language of the Declaration is important, for it contains a brilliant summary of a complete political philosophy:

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.
  • That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.
  • That whenever any form of government becomes destructive to these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.

This philosophy was not invented by Thomas Jefferson and the other members of the committee that drafted the Declaration. Various thinkers in Britain (most notably John Locke) and on the Continent had worked out a theory of popular sovereignty as an alternative to the divine right claimed by seventeenth century kings. The British were especially in need of such a theory because their Parliament had beheaded their King Charles I. They needed a theory that justified political revolution and provided a new foundation for political sovereignty.

American colonists needed such ideas. By January of 1776 British rule of its North American colonies had collapsed. By that time not one royal governor remained on North American soil (although two or three sat off-shore on men-of-war and pretended to rule their colonies from there). Revolution had been committed. It needed justification, and the newly free Americans needed a theory of political sovereignty.

The notion of human equality was more than a dodge to justify treason. Eleven years later, many of the men who drafted and approved the Declaration of Independence gathered again in Philadelphia and crafted a new and radical Constitution of the United States of America. The new document makes no mention of human equality. It goes the Declaration one better, however, and bases the new government on equality. It separates the political status of (white men) from the political status of their fathers. Each (white male) person was politically equal at birth. No one could inherit from his father a right to political power, nor could anyone inherit the taint of treason. Individuals could obtain political power only by the consent of their fellow citizens, and then they held that power only for a limited term.

The Constitution of 1787 enshrined substantial inequalities, but even its limited embrace of equality was revolutionary. Ordinary people took equality very seriously, and the equality at the center of the Constitution destabilized all aspects of life in the new nation. Equality became a dynamic force that drove the nation into Civil War and continues to be the deepest drive in American life.

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