All Commentary
Sunday, September 1, 1985

A Conservative Declaration


7.   The phrase has been used on countless occasions, not only by various liberals but by many respected non-equalitarians as well. To give just one instance, no less an authority than Harry Jaffa has been cited (by his devotee, Charles Kesler) as arguing in the name of opportunity that “The purpose of the (athletic) race is to find out who is the fastest, and this can be done only if the start of the race is fair.” (Kesler, p. 858)


The American Tradition of Equality

1. It is a very limited kind of equality that is avowed. Equality before the law and an equality of rights subsume the various expressions of it.

2. It assumes a negative role for government. This theme occurs repeatedly: Congress shall make no law . . . ; No bill of attainder . . . ; No title of nobility . . . shall be granted.
      The impact of this is positive, though the statements are negative. It means that men are freed from the restraints of fixed classes and orders, that they can use their energies to achieve their ends, so long as they do not violate the equal rights of others in doing so.

3. It in no way prescribes that men shall cease to make distinctions nor that differences will cease to exist. On the contrary, in the absence of legally prescribed positions, there may be as many differences of degree as there are individuals.

4. Such a conception of equality is consonant with liberty; indeed, it is a concomitant of the greatest liberty.

Clarence Carson, The American Tradition

7.   The phrase has been used on countless occasions, not only by various liberals but by many respected non-equalitarians as well. To give just one instance, no less an authority than Harry Jaffa has been cited (by his devotee, Charles Kesler) as arguing in the name of opportunity that “The purpose of the (athletic) race is to find out who is the fastest, and this can be done only if the start of the race is fair.” (Kesler, p. 858)


The American Tradition of Equality

1. It is a very limited kind of equality that is avowed. Equality before the law and an equality of rights subsume the various expressions of it.

2. It assumes a negative role for government. This theme occurs repeatedly: Congress shall make no law . . . ; No bill of attainder . . . ; No title of nobility . . . shall be granted.
      The impact of this is positive, though the statements are negative. It means that men are freed from the restraints of fixed classes and orders, that they can use their energies to achieve their ends, so long as they do not violate the equal rights of others in doing so.

3. It in no way prescribes that men shall cease to make distinctions nor that differences will cease to exist. On the contrary, in the absence of legally prescribed positions, there may be as many differences of degree as there are individuals.

4. Such a conception of equality is consonant with liberty; indeed, it is a concomitant of the greatest liberty.

Clarence Carson, The American Tradition

6.   By no means, however, have all the interpretations of the Declaration’s famous clause been simplistic equalitarian efforts. Some of the more perceptive students of the equality principle (such as Harry Jaffa and Charles Kesler) have concluded that it does not imply any sort of leveling at all. Rather, they contend, it suggests a basic equality of natural rights, viz., life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Thus, the argument goes, “the doctrine of Equality” is the central principle of the American Experience, rooted as it is in the basic equality of man. (Charles Kesler, “A Special Meaning of the Declaration of Independence,” National Review XXXI, No. 27 (July 6, 1979), pp. 850859) As attractive as this argument may be, it suffers from several weaknesses. First, the Declaration of Independence itself does not explicitly give any content to its famous equality clause. Second, the priority of equality to liberty as an end is not established. That is, we may concede for argument’s sake that equality may have had to some of the Fathers a certain priority to liberty as a means to an end (as surgery may be prior to health, for example), but certainly not in the sense of being of greater importance to them, a point clearly manifest in the Constitution’s preamble.

7.   The phrase has been used on countless occasions, not only by various liberals but by many respected non-equalitarians as well. To give just one instance, no less an authority than Harry Jaffa has been cited (by his devotee, Charles Kesler) as arguing in the name of opportunity that “The purpose of the (athletic) race is to find out who is the fastest, and this can be done only if the start of the race is fair.” (Kesler, p. 858)


The American Tradition of Equality

1. It is a very limited kind of equality that is avowed. Equality before the law and an equality of rights subsume the various expressions of it.

2. It assumes a negative role for government. This theme occurs repeatedly: Congress shall make no law . . . ; No bill of attainder . . . ; No title of nobility . . . shall be granted.
      The impact of this is positive, though the statements are negative. It means that men are freed from the restraints of fixed classes and orders, that they can use their energies to achieve their ends, so long as they do not violate the equal rights of others in doing so.

3. It in no way prescribes that men shall cease to make distinctions nor that differences will cease to exist. On the contrary, in the absence of legally prescribed positions, there may be as many differences of degree as there are individuals.

4. Such a conception of equality is consonant with liberty; indeed, it is a concomitant of the greatest liberty.

Clarence Carson, The American Tradition

6.   By no means, however, have all the interpretations of the Declaration’s famous clause been simplistic equalitarian efforts. Some of the more perceptive students of the equality principle (such as Harry Jaffa and Charles Kesler) have concluded that it does not imply any sort of leveling at all. Rather, they contend, it suggests a basic equality of natural rights, viz., life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Thus, the argument goes, “the doctrine of Equality” is the central principle of the American Experience, rooted as it is in the basic equality of man. (Charles Kesler, “A Special Meaning of the Declaration of Independence,” National Review XXXI, No. 27 (July 6, 1979), pp. 850859) As attractive as this argument may be, it suffers from several weaknesses. First, the Declaration of Independence itself does not explicitly give any content to its famous equality clause. Second, the priority of equality to liberty as an end is not established. That is, we may concede for argument’s sake that equality may have had to some of the Fathers a certain priority to liberty as a means to an end (as surgery may be prior to health, for example), but certainly not in the sense of being of greater importance to them, a point clearly manifest in the Constitution’s preamble.

7.   The phrase has been used on countless occasions, not only by various liberals but by many respected non-equalitarians as well. To give just one instance, no less an authority than Harry Jaffa has been cited (by his devotee, Charles Kesler) as arguing in the name of opportunity that “The purpose of the (athletic) race is to find out who is the fastest, and this can be done only if the start of the race is fair.” (Kesler, p. 858)


The American Tradition of Equality

1. It is a very limited kind of equality that is avowed. Equality before the law and an equality of rights subsume the various expressions of it.

2. It assumes a negative role for government. This theme occurs repeatedly: Congress shall make no law . . . ; No bill of attainder . . . ; No title of nobility . . . shall be granted.
      The impact of this is positive, though the statements are negative. It means that men are freed from the restraints of fixed classes and orders, that they can use their energies to achieve their ends, so long as they do not violate the equal rights of others in doing so.

3. It in no way prescribes that men shall cease to make distinctions nor that differences will cease to exist. On the contrary, in the absence of legally prescribed positions, there may be as many differences of degree as there are individuals.

4. Such a conception of equality is consonant with liberty; indeed, it is a concomitant of the greatest liberty.

Clarence Carson, The American Tradition

5.   It should be noted that for the purposes of this essay the distinction between soul and mind is of secondary importance in its implications.

6.   By no means, however, have all the interpretations of the Declaration’s famous clause been simplistic equalitarian efforts. Some of the more perceptive students of the equality principle (such as Harry Jaffa and Charles Kesler) have concluded that it does not imply any sort of leveling at all. Rather, they contend, it suggests a basic equality of natural rights, viz., life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Thus, the argument goes, “the doctrine of Equality” is the central principle of the American Experience, rooted as it is in the basic equality of man. (Charles Kesler, “A Special Meaning of the Declaration of Independence,” National Review XXXI, No. 27 (July 6, 1979), pp. 850859) As attractive as this argument may be, it suffers from several weaknesses. First, the Declaration of Independence itself does not explicitly give any content to its famous equality clause. Second, the priority of equality to liberty as an end is not established. That is, we may concede for argument’s sake that equality may have had to some of the Fathers a certain priority to liberty as a means to an end (as surgery may be prior to health, for example), but certainly not in the sense of being of greater importance to them, a point clearly manifest in the Constitution’s preamble.

7.   The phrase has been used on countless occasions, not only by various liberals but by many respected non-equalitarians as well. To give just one instance, no less an authority than Harry Jaffa has been cited (by his devotee, Charles Kesler) as arguing in the name of opportunity that “The purpose of the (athletic) race is to find out who is the fastest, and this can be done only if the start of the race is fair.” (Kesler, p. 858)


The American Tradition of Equality

1. It is a very limited kind of equality that is avowed. Equality before the law and an equality of rights subsume the various expressions of it.

2. It assumes a negative role for government. This theme occurs repeatedly: Congress shall make no law . . . ; No bill of attainder . . . ; No title of nobility . . . shall be granted.
      The impact of this is positive, though the statements are negative. It means that men are freed from the restraints of fixed classes and orders, that they can use their energies to achieve their ends, so long as they do not violate the equal rights of others in doing so.

3. It in no way prescribes that men shall cease to make distinctions nor that differences will cease to exist. On the contrary, in the absence of legally prescribed positions, there may be as many differences of degree as there are individuals.

4. Such a conception of equality is consonant with liberty; indeed, it is a concomitant of the greatest liberty.

Clarence Carson, The American Tradition

5.   It should be noted that for the purposes of this essay the distinction between soul and mind is of secondary importance in its implications.

6.   By no means, however, have all the interpretations of the Declaration’s famous clause been simplistic equalitarian efforts. Some of the more perceptive students of the equality principle (such as Harry Jaffa and Charles Kesler) have concluded that it does not imply any sort of leveling at all. Rather, they contend, it suggests a basic equality of natural rights, viz., life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Thus, the argument goes, “the doctrine of Equality” is the central principle of the American Experience, rooted as it is in the basic equality of man. (Charles Kesler, “A Special Meaning of the Declaration of Independence,” National Review XXXI, No. 27 (July 6, 1979), pp. 850859) As attractive as this argument may be, it suffers from several weaknesses. First, the Declaration of Independence itself does not explicitly give any content to its famous equality clause. Second, the priority of equality to liberty as an end is not established. That is, we may concede for argument’s sake that equality may have had to some of the Fathers a certain priority to liberty as a means to an end (as surgery may be prior to health, for example), but certainly not in the sense of being of greater importance to them, a point clearly manifest in the Constitution’s preamble.

7.   The phrase has been used on countless occasions, not only by various liberals but by many respected non-equalitarians as well. To give just one instance, no less an authority than Harry Jaffa has been cited (by his devotee, Charles Kesler) as arguing in the name of opportunity that “The purpose of the (athletic) race is to find out who is the fastest, and this can be done only if the start of the race is fair.” (Kesler, p. 858)


The American Tradition of Equality

1. It is a very limited kind of equality that is avowed. Equality before the law and an equality of rights subsume the various expressions of it.

2. It assumes a negative role for government. This theme occurs repeatedly: Congress shall make no law . . . ; No bill of attainder . . . ; No title of nobility . . . shall be granted.
      The impact of this is positive, though the statements are negative. It means that men are freed from the restraints of fixed classes and orders, that they can use their energies to achieve their ends, so long as they do not violate the equal rights of others in doing so.

3. It in no way prescribes that men shall cease to make distinctions nor that differences will cease to exist. On the contrary, in the absence of legally prescribed positions, there may be as many differences of degree as there are individuals.

4. Such a conception of equality is consonant with liberty; indeed, it is a concomitant of the greatest liberty.

Clarence Carson, The American Tradition

4.   J. Franklin Jameson, The American Revolution Considered as a Social Movement (Boston: Beacon Press, 1959). Originally printed in 1926, this work exerted a powerful influence on later historical research.

5.   It should be noted that for the purposes of this essay the distinction between soul and mind is of secondary importance in its implications.

6.   By no means, however, have all the interpretations of the Declaration’s famous clause been simplistic equalitarian efforts. Some of the more perceptive students of the equality principle (such as Harry Jaffa and Charles Kesler) have concluded that it does not imply any sort of leveling at all. Rather, they contend, it suggests a basic equality of natural rights, viz., life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Thus, the argument goes, “the doctrine of Equality” is the central principle of the American Experience, rooted as it is in the basic equality of man. (Charles Kesler, “A Special Meaning of the Declaration of Independence,” National Review XXXI, No. 27 (July 6, 1979), pp. 850859) As attractive as this argument may be, it suffers from several weaknesses. First, the Declaration of Independence itself does not explicitly give any content to its famous equality clause. Second, the priority of equality to liberty as an end is not established. That is, we may concede for argument’s sake that equality may have had to some of the Fathers a certain priority to liberty as a means to an end (as surgery may be prior to health, for example), but certainly not in the sense of being of greater importance to them, a point clearly manifest in the Constitution’s preamble.

7.   The phrase has been used on countless occasions, not only by various liberals but by many respected non-equalitarians as well. To give just one instance, no less an authority than Harry Jaffa has been cited (by his devotee, Charles Kesler) as arguing in the name of opportunity that “The purpose of the (athletic) race is to find out who is the fastest, and this can be done only if the start of the race is fair.” (Kesler, p. 858)


The American Tradition of Equality

1. It is a very limited kind of equality that is avowed. Equality before the law and an equality of rights subsume the various expressions of it.

2. It assumes a negative role for government. This theme occurs repeatedly: Congress shall make no law . . . ; No bill of attainder . . . ; No title of nobility . . . shall be granted.
      The impact of this is positive, though the statements are negative. It means that men are freed from the restraints of fixed classes and orders, that they can use their energies to achieve their ends, so long as they do not violate the equal rights of others in doing so.

3. It in no way prescribes that men shall cease to make distinctions nor that differences will cease to exist. On the contrary, in the absence of legally prescribed positions, there may be as many differences of degree as there are individuals.

4. Such a conception of equality is consonant with liberty; indeed, it is a concomitant of the greatest liberty.

Clarence Carson, The American Tradition

4.   J. Franklin Jameson, The American Revolution Considered as a Social Movement (Boston: Beacon Press, 1959). Originally printed in 1926, this work exerted a powerful influence on later historical research.

5.   It should be noted that for the purposes of this essay the distinction between soul and mind is of secondary importance in its implications.

6.   By no means, however, have all the interpretations of the Declaration’s famous clause been simplistic equalitarian efforts. Some of the more perceptive students of the equality principle (such as Harry Jaffa and Charles Kesler) have concluded that it does not imply any sort of leveling at all. Rather, they contend, it suggests a basic equality of natural rights, viz., life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Thus, the argument goes, “the doctrine of Equality” is the central principle of the American Experience, rooted as it is in the basic equality of man. (Charles Kesler, “A Special Meaning of the Declaration of Independence,” National Review XXXI, No. 27 (July 6, 1979), pp. 850859) As attractive as this argument may be, it suffers from several weaknesses. First, the Declaration of Independence itself does not explicitly give any content to its famous equality clause. Second, the priority of equality to liberty as an end is not established. That is, we may concede for argument’s sake that equality may have had to some of the Fathers a certain priority to liberty as a means to an end (as surgery may be prior to health, for example), but certainly not in the sense of being of greater importance to them, a point clearly manifest in the Constitution’s preamble.

7.   The phrase has been used on countless occasions, not only by various liberals but by many respected non-equalitarians as well. To give just one instance, no less an authority than Harry Jaffa has been cited (by his devotee, Charles Kesler) as arguing in the name of opportunity that “The purpose of the (athletic) race is to find out who is the fastest, and this can be done only if the start of the race is fair.” (Kesler, p. 858)


The American Tradition of Equality

1. It is a very limited kind of equality that is avowed. Equality before the law and an equality of rights subsume the various expressions of it.

2. It assumes a negative role for government. This theme occurs repeatedly: Congress shall make no law . . . ; No bill of attainder . . . ; No title of nobility . . . shall be granted.
      The impact of this is positive, though the statements are negative. It means that men are freed from the restraints of fixed classes and orders, that they can use their energies to achieve their ends, so long as they do not violate the equal rights of others in doing so.

3. It in no way prescribes that men shall cease to make distinctions nor that differences will cease to exist. On the contrary, in the absence of legally prescribed positions, there may be as many differences of degree as there are individuals.

4. Such a conception of equality is consonant with liberty; indeed, it is a concomitant of the greatest liberty.

Clarence Carson, The American Tradition

3.   Cecelia Kenyon, The Antifederalists. (New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1966), p. 262. The speaker cited is Patrick Henry of Virginia.

4.   J. Franklin Jameson, The American Revolution Considered as a Social Movement (Boston: Beacon Press, 1959). Originally printed in 1926, this work exerted a powerful influence on later historical research.

5.   It should be noted that for the purposes of this essay the distinction between soul and mind is of secondary importance in its implications.

6.   By no means, however, have all the interpretations of the Declaration’s famous clause been simplistic equalitarian efforts. Some of the more perceptive students of the equality principle (such as Harry Jaffa and Charles Kesler) have concluded that it does not imply any sort of leveling at all. Rather, they contend, it suggests a basic equality of natural rights, viz., life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Thus, the argument goes, “the doctrine of Equality” is the central principle of the American Experience, rooted as it is in the basic equality of man. (Charles Kesler, “A Special Meaning of the Declaration of Independence,” National Review XXXI, No. 27 (July 6, 1979), pp. 850859) As attractive as this argument may be, it suffers from several weaknesses. First, the Declaration of Independence itself does not explicitly give any content to its famous equality clause. Second, the priority of equality to liberty as an end is not established. That is, we may concede for argument’s sake that equality may have had to some of the Fathers a certain priority to liberty as a means to an end (as surgery may be prior to health, for example), but certainly not in the sense of being of greater importance to them, a point clearly manifest in the Constitution’s preamble.

7.   The phrase has been used on countless occasions, not only by various liberals but by many respected non-equalitarians as well. To give just one instance, no less an authority than Harry Jaffa has been cited (by his devotee, Charles Kesler) as arguing in the name of opportunity that “The purpose of the (athletic) race is to find out who is the fastest, and this can be done only if the start of the race is fair.” (Kesler, p. 858)


The American Tradition of Equality

1. It is a very limited kind of equality that is avowed. Equality before the law and an equality of rights subsume the various expressions of it.

2. It assumes a negative role for government. This theme occurs repeatedly: Congress shall make no law . . . ; No bill of attainder . . . ; No title of nobility . . . shall be granted.
      The impact of this is positive, though the statements are negative. It means that men are freed from the restraints of fixed classes and orders, that they can use their energies to achieve their ends, so long as they do not violate the equal rights of others in doing so.

3. It in no way prescribes that men shall cease to make distinctions nor that differences will cease to exist. On the contrary, in the absence of legally prescribed positions, there may be as many differences of degree as there are individuals.

4. Such a conception of equality is consonant with liberty; indeed, it is a concomitant of the greatest liberty.

Clarence Carson, The American Tradition

3.   Cecelia Kenyon, The Antifederalists. (New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1966), p. 262. The speaker cited is Patrick Henry of Virginia.

4.   J. Franklin Jameson, The American Revolution Considered as a Social Movement (Boston: Beacon Press, 1959). Originally printed in 1926, this work exerted a powerful influence on later historical research.

5.   It should be noted that for the purposes of this essay the distinction between soul and mind is of secondary importance in its implications.

6.   By no means, however, have all the interpretations of the Declaration’s famous clause been simplistic equalitarian efforts. Some of the more perceptive students of the equality principle (such as Harry Jaffa and Charles Kesler) have concluded that it does not imply any sort of leveling at all. Rather, they contend, it suggests a basic equality of natural rights, viz., life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Thus, the argument goes, “the doctrine of Equality” is the central principle of the American Experience, rooted as it is in the basic equality of man. (Charles Kesler, “A Special Meaning of the Declaration of Independence,” National Review XXXI, No. 27 (July 6, 1979), pp. 850859) As attractive as this argument may be, it suffers from several weaknesses. First, the Declaration of Independence itself does not explicitly give any content to its famous equality clause. Second, the priority of equality to liberty as an end is not established. That is, we may concede for argument’s sake that equality may have had to some of the Fathers a certain priority to liberty as a means to an end (as surgery may be prior to health, for example), but certainly not in the sense of being of greater importance to them, a point clearly manifest in the Constitution’s preamble.

7.   The phrase has been used on countless occasions, not only by various liberals but by many respected non-equalitarians as well. To give just one instance, no less an authority than Harry Jaffa has been cited (by his devotee, Charles Kesler) as arguing in the name of opportunity that “The purpose of the (athletic) race is to find out who is the fastest, and this can be done only if the start of the race is fair.” (Kesler, p. 858)


The American Tradition of Equality

1. It is a very limited kind of equality that is avowed. Equality before the law and an equality of rights subsume the various expressions of it.

2. It assumes a negative role for government. This theme occurs repeatedly: Congress shall make no law . . . ; No bill of attainder . . . ; No title of nobility . . . shall be granted.
      The impact of this is positive, though the statements are negative. It means that men are freed from the restraints of fixed classes and orders, that they can use their energies to achieve their ends, so long as they do not violate the equal rights of others in doing so.

3. It in no way prescribes that men shall cease to make distinctions nor that differences will cease to exist. On the contrary, in the absence of legally prescribed positions, there may be as many differences of degree as there are individuals.

4. Such a conception of equality is consonant with liberty; indeed, it is a concomitant of the greatest liberty.

Clarence Carson, The American Tradition

2.   Jonathan Elliot, ed., The Debates in the Several State Conventions on the Adoption of the Federal Constitution as Recommended by the General Convention, in 1787. 5 vols. (New York: Burt Franklin, 1966), II, 133. The speaker cited is Samuel Nason of Massachusetts.

3.   Cecelia Kenyon, The Antifederalists. (New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1966), p. 262. The speaker cited is Patrick Henry of Virginia.

4.   J. Franklin Jameson, The American Revolution Considered as a Social Movement (Boston: Beacon Press, 1959). Originally printed in 1926, this work exerted a powerful influence on later historical research.

5.   It should be noted that for the purposes of this essay the distinction between soul and mind is of secondary importance in its implications.

6.   By no means, however, have all the interpretations of the Declaration’s famous clause been simplistic equalitarian efforts. Some of the more perceptive students of the equality principle (such as Harry Jaffa and Charles Kesler) have concluded that it does not imply any sort of leveling at all. Rather, they contend, it suggests a basic equality of natural rights, viz., life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Thus, the argument goes, “the doctrine of Equality” is the central principle of the American Experience, rooted as it is in the basic equality of man. (Charles Kesler, “A Special Meaning of the Declaration of Independence,” National Review XXXI, No. 27 (July 6, 1979), pp. 850859) As attractive as this argument may be, it suffers from several weaknesses. First, the Declaration of Independence itself does not explicitly give any content to its famous equality clause. Second, the priority of equality to liberty as an end is not established. That is, we may concede for argument’s sake that equality may have had to some of the Fathers a certain priority to liberty as a means to an end (as surgery may be prior to health, for example), but certainly not in the sense of being of greater importance to them, a point clearly manifest in the Constitution’s preamble.

7.   The phrase has been used on countless occasions, not only by various liberals but by many respected non-equalitarians as well. To give just one instance, no less an authority than Harry Jaffa has been cited (by his devotee, Charles Kesler) as arguing in the name of opportunity that “The purpose of the (athletic) race is to find out who is the fastest, and this can be done only if the start of the race is fair.” (Kesler, p. 858)


The American Tradition of Equality

1. It is a very limited kind of equality that is avowed. Equality before the law and an equality of rights subsume the various expressions of it.

2. It assumes a negative role for government. This theme occurs repeatedly: Congress shall make no law . . . ; No bill of attainder . . . ; No title of nobility . . . shall be granted.
      The impact of this is positive, though the statements are negative. It means that men are freed from the restraints of fixed classes and orders, that they can use their energies to achieve their ends, so long as they do not violate the equal rights of others in doing so.

3. It in no way prescribes that men shall cease to make distinctions nor that differences will cease to exist. On the contrary, in the absence of legally prescribed positions, there may be as many differences of degree as there are individuals.

4. Such a conception of equality is consonant with liberty; indeed, it is a concomitant of the greatest liberty.

Clarence Carson, The American Tradition

2.   Jonathan Elliot, ed., The Debates in the Several State Conventions on the Adoption of the Federal Constitution as Recommended by the General Convention, in 1787. 5 vols. (New York: Burt Franklin, 1966), II, 133. The speaker cited is Samuel Nason of Massachusetts.

3.   Cecelia Kenyon, The Antifederalists. (New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1966), p. 262. The speaker cited is Patrick Henry of Virginia.

4.   J. Franklin Jameson, The American Revolution Considered as a Social Movement (Boston: Beacon Press, 1959). Originally printed in 1926, this work exerted a powerful influence on later historical research.

5.   It should be noted that for the purposes of this essay the distinction between soul and mind is of secondary importance in its implications.

6.   By no means, however, have all the interpretations of the Declaration’s famous clause been simplistic equalitarian efforts. Some of the more perceptive students of the equality principle (such as Harry Jaffa and Charles Kesler) have concluded that it does not imply any sort of leveling at all. Rather, they contend, it suggests a basic equality of natural rights, viz., life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Thus, the argument goes, “the doctrine of Equality” is the central principle of the American Experience, rooted as it is in the basic equality of man. (Charles Kesler, “A Special Meaning of the Declaration of Independence,” National Review XXXI, No. 27 (July 6, 1979), pp. 850859) As attractive as this argument may be, it suffers from several weaknesses. First, the Declaration of Independence itself does not explicitly give any content to its famous equality clause. Second, the priority of equality to liberty as an end is not established. That is, we may concede for argument’s sake that equality may have had to some of the Fathers a certain priority to liberty as a means to an end (as surgery may be prior to health, for example), but certainly not in the sense of being of greater importance to them, a point clearly manifest in the Constitution’s preamble.

7.   The phrase has been used on countless occasions, not only by various liberals but by many respected non-equalitarians as well. To give just one instance, no less an authority than Harry Jaffa has been cited (by his devotee, Charles Kesler) as arguing in the name of opportunity that “The purpose of the (athletic) race is to find out who is the fastest, and this can be done only if the start of the race is fair.” (Kesler, p. 858)


The American Tradition of Equality

1. It is a very limited kind of equality that is avowed. Equality before the law and an equality of rights subsume the various expressions of it.

2. It assumes a negative role for government. This theme occurs repeatedly: Congress shall make no law . . . ; No bill of attainder . . . ; No title of nobility . . . shall be granted.
      The impact of this is positive, though the statements are negative. It means that men are freed from the restraints of fixed classes and orders, that they can use their energies to achieve their ends, so long as they do not violate the equal rights of others in doing so.

3. It in no way prescribes that men shall cease to make distinctions nor that differences will cease to exist. On the contrary, in the absence of legally prescribed positions, there may be as many differences of degree as there are individuals.

4. Such a conception of equality is consonant with liberty; indeed, it is a concomitant of the greatest liberty.

Clarence Carson, The American Tradition

1.   Willmoore Kendall, “Basic Issues Between Conservatives and Liberals,” Contra Mundum, edited by Nellie D. Kendall (New Rochelle, N.Y.: Arlington House), p. 579.

2.   Jonathan Elliot, ed., The Debates in the Several State Conventions on the Adoption of the Federal Constitution as Recommended by the General Convention, in 1787. 5 vols. (New York: Burt Franklin, 1966), II, 133. The speaker cited is Samuel Nason of Massachusetts.

3.   Cecelia Kenyon, The Antifederalists. (New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1966), p. 262. The speaker cited is Patrick Henry of Virginia.

4.   J. Franklin Jameson, The American Revolution Considered as a Social Movement (Boston: Beacon Press, 1959). Originally printed in 1926, this work exerted a powerful influence on later historical research.

5.   It should be noted that for the purposes of this essay the distinction between soul and mind is of secondary importance in its implications.

6.   By no means, however, have all the interpretations of the Declaration’s famous clause been simplistic equalitarian efforts. Some of the more perceptive students of the equality principle (such as Harry Jaffa and Charles Kesler) have concluded that it does not imply any sort of leveling at all. Rather, they contend, it suggests a basic equality of natural rights, viz., life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Thus, the argument goes, “the doctrine of Equality” is the central principle of the American Experience, rooted as it is in the basic equality of man. (Charles Kesler, “A Special Meaning of the Declaration of Independence,” National Review XXXI, No. 27 (July 6, 1979), pp. 850859) As attractive as this argument may be, it suffers from several weaknesses. First, the Declaration of Independence itself does not explicitly give any content to its famous equality clause. Second, the priority of equality to liberty as an end is not established. That is, we may concede for argument’s sake that equality may have had to some of the Fathers a certain priority to liberty as a means to an end (as surgery may be prior to health, for example), but certainly not in the sense of being of greater importance to them, a point clearly manifest in the Constitution’s preamble.

7.   The phrase has been used on countless occasions, not only by various liberals but by many respected non-equalitarians as well. To give just one instance, no less an authority than Harry Jaffa has been cited (by his devotee, Charles Kesler) as arguing in the name of opportunity that “The purpose of the (athletic) race is to find out who is the fastest, and this can be done only if the start of the race is fair.” (Kesler, p. 858)


The American Tradition of Equality

1. It is a very limited kind of equality that is avowed. Equality before the law and an equality of rights subsume the various expressions of it.

2. It assumes a negative role for government. This theme occurs repeatedly: Congress shall make no law . . . ; No bill of attainder . . . ; No title of nobility . . . shall be granted.
      The impact of this is positive, though the statements are negative. It means that men are freed from the restraints of fixed classes and orders, that they can use their energies to achieve their ends, so long as they do not violate the equal rights of others in doing so.

3. It in no way prescribes that men shall cease to make distinctions nor that differences will cease to exist. On the contrary, in the absence of legally prescribed positions, there may be as many differences of degree as there are individuals.

4. Such a conception of equality is consonant with liberty; indeed, it is a concomitant of the greatest liberty.

Clarence Carson, The American Tradition


1.   Willmoore Kendall, “Basic Issues Between Conservatives and Liberals,” Contra Mundum, edited by Nellie D. Kendall (New Rochelle, N.Y.: Arlington House), p. 579.

2.   Jonathan Elliot, ed., The Debates in the Several State Conventions on the Adoption of the Federal Constitution as Recommended by the General Convention, in 1787. 5 vols. (New York: Burt Franklin, 1966), II, 133. The speaker cited is Samuel Nason of Massachusetts.

3.   Cecelia Kenyon, The Antifederalists. (New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1966), p. 262. The speaker cited is Patrick Henry of Virginia.

4.   J. Franklin Jameson, The American Revolution Considered as a Social Movement (Boston: Beacon Press, 1959). Originally printed in 1926, this work exerted a powerful influence on later historical research.

5.   It should be noted that for the purposes of this essay the distinction between soul and mind is of secondary importance in its implications.

6.   By no means, however, have all the interpretations of the Declaration’s famous clause been simplistic equalitarian efforts. Some of the more perceptive students of the equality principle (such as Harry Jaffa and Charles Kesler) have concluded that it does not imply any sort of leveling at all. Rather, they contend, it suggests a basic equality of natural rights, viz., life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Thus, the argument goes, “the doctrine of Equality” is the central principle of the American Experience, rooted as it is in the basic equality of man. (Charles Kesler, “A Special Meaning of the Declaration of Independence,” National Review XXXI, No. 27 (July 6, 1979), pp. 850859) As attractive as this argument may be, it suffers from several weaknesses. First, the Declaration of Independence itself does not explicitly give any content to its famous equality clause. Second, the priority of equality to liberty as an end is not established. That is, we may concede for argument’s sake that equality may have had to some of the Fathers a certain priority to liberty as a means to an end (as surgery may be prior to health, for example), but certainly not in the sense of being of greater importance to them, a point clearly manifest in the Constitution’s preamble.

7.   The phrase has been used on countless occasions, not only by various liberals but by many respected non-equalitarians as well. To give just one instance, no less an authority than Harry Jaffa has been cited (by his devotee, Charles Kesler) as arguing in the name of opportunity that “The purpose of the (athletic) race is to find out who is the fastest, and this can be done only if the start of the race is fair.” (Kesler, p. 858)


The American Tradition of Equality

1. It is a very limited kind of equality that is avowed. Equality before the law and an equality of rights subsume the various expressions of it.

2. It assumes a negative role for government. This theme occurs repeatedly: Congress shall make no law . . . ; No bill of attainder . . . ; No title of nobility . . . shall be granted.
      The impact of this is positive, though the statements are negative. It means that men are freed from the restraints of fixed classes and orders, that they can use their energies to achieve their ends, so long as they do not violate the equal rights of others in doing so.

3. It in no way prescribes that men shall cease to make distinctions nor that differences will cease to exist. On the contrary, in the absence of legally prescribed positions, there may be as many differences of degree as there are individuals.

4. Such a conception of equality is consonant with liberty; indeed, it is a concomitant of the greatest liberty.

Clarence Carson, The American Tradition

Dr. Bordelon is Chairman, Department of Social Studies, St. Thomas Episcopal School, Houston, Texas.

“Equality of opportunity, far from being a matter of settled doctrine amongst us, is a basic issue between the Liberals among us and the Conservatives among us.”[1] As arresting as this insight by Willmoore Kendall may be, it is nonetheless an understatement: the extent to which America is dedicated to “equality of opportunity” is not merely a basic difference between liberals and conservatives, it is the basic difference.

Considering that the debate over egalitarianism has been at the heart of American political dialogue for at least half a century now, it would seem that both the meaning of equality and its place in the American political tradition would be firmly established. But it is not so. Although many observers, sophisticated and unsophisticated alike, have attempted to link “the equality principle” with our Founding Fathers, the connection is still dubious, mainly because the Fathers were far more fond of talking about liberty than about equality.

The priority of liberty to our nation’s Founders is clear. If the various documents of the last quarter of eighteenth-century American history are examined carefully, the reader will find them filled with references to the effect that liberty is the “greatest good,”[2] or that the preservation of liberty is “the most valuable end of government,”[3] or that government exists “to secure the blessings of liberty.” This last reference is, of course, taken from the preamble to the Constitution, the most solemn statement of promises that we Americans have ever made to each other. In fact, references in late eighteenth-century American political literature proclaiming a great love for liberty are so numerous that painstaking research is not needed to find many of them. We may wonder what the Fathers meant by liberty, or whether liberty may be properly regarded as an end in itself, or should instead be regarded as a means of achieving some greater good. But whatever our uncertainty, the fact remains that in the late 1700s many Americans did pronounce liberty to be one of life’s greatest goods, especially in that all-important listing of ends in the Constitution’s preamble.

The Importance of Liberty

By contrast, formal and explicit statements maintaining that equality is a goal of American life are few and far between. Indeed, the leveling spirit which has often been associated with democracy was one of the most oft-mentioned fears of our Founding Fathers. It would be difficult to find any explicit passage stating that it was their object to make America a land of greater equality; it is not difficult to find passages in which the Fathers boldly stated their aim to secure liberty for themselves and their descendants.

This is not to deny the observations of Franklin and Tocqueville that the early United States was a land characterized by a high degree of equality in comparison to the nations of contemporary Europe. Investigations by more recent observers[4] have likewise revealed that certain developments of the Revolutionary period tended to reduce some of the political, social, and economic inequalities of the day. The dispossession of the Tories, the abolition of primogeniture and entail, and the relaxation of property and religious requirements for voting and holding office are all cases in point. On a few occasions some Americans (notably Anti-federalists) even speculated that America would be a healthier place if it were not divided into wealthy families and impoverished masses such as existed in Rome in the century preceding Caesar Augustus.

Nevertheless, even granting these concessions to the importance of an implied equality at the time of the Founding, it is still clear that the Founding Fathers never dedicated themselves to a conscious and active pursuit of the equality principle to a degree comparable to the strength of their devotion to liberty. Liberty was eulogized far more frequently, openly, and forcefully than equality, which was only rarely mentioned by the Fathers with any enthusiasm. The result has been that those who seek an American commitment to the equality “principle” have found themselves almost of necessity depending upon analysis of the most famous statement on equality in our political heritage, the “all men are created equal” clause in the Declaration of Independence.

The great problem with the equality principle as stated in the Declaration of Independence is its brevity. The simple truth is that the equality clause lacks any explicit meaning. The statement is simply too short. Whatever meaning is to be gained from the famous clause must therefore be derived by implication. Consequently, the clause has been subjected to numerous different interpretations by many different advocates of “the doctrine of Equality,” all of them seeking to remake America into a land of equality as they understand it, including the view so often urged upon us that it is our duty, where equality does not exist, to make men equal. There are, of course, other less radical interpretations suggesting that “all men are created equal in the sight of God,” or that “the Americans are equal to the British,” or that “all races are equal to each other,” or any number of other, often ingenious, understandings.

The Ambiguity of Equality

Such interpretations all suffer from the same basic weakness: they are not self-evidently true or “obvious.” It has often been pointed out that the term “self-evident” can have a more philosophical meaning: that is, a self-evident truth may be one in which the truthfulness of the proposition is contained within the meaning of the terms. Nevertheless, even granting the merits of this argument, it does not explain the tremendous power that the equality clause has exercised over the minds of men.

To explain the power of the assertion we must understand it as self-evident not in philosophical terms but in terms of the obvious. That is, we must somehow find some meaning of the equality clause which can explain why all who ponder it are instinctively inclined to accept it as obvious, or as “self-evident.” The forcefulness of the statement is lost unless it contains a meaning which is clearly true, and even more than that, pertains equally to every member of the human race, in all places and at all times in human history. Even more, the meaning must be un affected by the manifold differences among men including their varying talents, intelligence levels, nationalities, races, and genders as well as a host of other distinctions too numerous to mention.

Without in any way denying this tremendous variety of distinguishing features, we may note at least two simple ways in which the basic equality of men is generally conceded. First, there is little dispute that all men are equal in that every man has one and only one body. Every man, always and everywhere, is equal to every other man in bodily number; every man has exactly one body to nourish and use and, eventually, lose, in this world. Yet despite the manifest clarity of this rather simple observation, it is rarely uttered as a political statement. When men come to interpret the “all men are created equal” clause, they generally prefer to devise novel interpretations (often formulated to serve ulterior purposes). These intellectual exercises are not necessary. The assertion of the bodily equality of all men, simple as it is, is not barren of practical political implications, and in fact can be taken to be the starting point of social contract theory. The bodily equality of men may well be regarded as the basis of the Lockean natural rights to life and property, i.e., sustenance.

The second basic equality of all men is spiritual rather than physical. Although men disagree about the exact character of man’s spiritual powers, few are willing to contest that man is endowed with a nonphysical faculty of some kind, whether it be understood as soul or intellect. And as in the physical sense, this conception of equality has a mathematical simplicity: every man has one soul or intellect, and one is clearly equal to one. Although this argument may be regarded with justice as commonplace, it nonetheless deserves mention because it is asserted far less often in connection with the equality clause than is the more vague contention that “all men are equal in the sight of God.” From the clearly defined belief that every man is endowed with a soul come very definite implications which preclude the propriety of treating men as if they were animals.[5] That is, if man is dignified by a spirit which informs his very being, then the concentration camps and other cruelties of twentieth-century totalitarianism are clearly indefensible. Viewed in the light of such implications, the Declaration’s assertion of a right to “the pursuit of happiness” may then be construed as meaning that each man should have the freedom to attempt to fulfill both his bodily and his spiritual needs.

What Equality Isn’t

The simplicity of such fundamental interpretations of the equality principle may seem to leave open the possibility of an inexhaustible number of political implications, but it is important to consider certain meanings which do not seem to be implied, particularly when such meanings have been given wide circulation in recent decades. First, the clause itself does not specify any concrete way in which all men may be regarded as equal. For that matter, it does not even go so far as to suggest any ways in which men ought to be equal. Second, the clause does not contain any implication that men should be made equal in ways in which they are not already equal. And third, there is no hint that government should take up the job of the Creator and make men equal; there is no evidence that the welfare state is hidden in the expression “all men are created equal.” In short, there is no implication whatsoever that equality is itself a goal or end of government or of life in society.[6] In fact, even the Declaration argues that government exists to secure liberty and not equality, clearly implying liberty as an end of government action.

It can be argued that the Declaration was and should be revered at least as much for its role in securing our liberty or independence from England as for its famous statement on equality. This argument is all the more plausible since the Declaration connects government far more directly with liberty than with equality: liberty is one of the three basic rights listed in the Declaration as being the objects of protection by legitimate action. Thus also the Bill of Rights was cherished by its advocates as a bulwark of liberty, a point made often by its most zealous proponents. And even Lincoln sought for the slave not equality so much as liberty. Perhaps Lincoln’s most significant political act was the Emancipation Proclamation, a gesture which sought to free the slaves, not to make them equal to the whites. The opposite of slavery is liberty, not equality.

The March Toward Uniformity

For some decades now people have concluded that mere emancipation has not been sufficient—for our various “underprivileged” groups to be truly free, it is argued, they must be on an equal footing with “mainstream” Americans politically, socially, and economically. Thus in the twentieth century we have seen an enormous effort made to secure these equalities for our various “disadvantaged” citizens so that they will eventually enjoy full “equality of opportunity” with the nation’s more established citizens.

But there is tremendous confusion over the use of the phrase “equality of opportunity,” which is often used in terms of an athletic footrace.[7] Although at first glance this metaphor may seem simple enough, a little thought makes the comparison confusing. Everyone is agreed as to what is “fair” in an athletic contest: all the participants should begin the race at the same starting point and begin to run at the same time. However, the concept “equality of opportunity” is not so clear when it is applied to the operations of individuals involved in the manifold activities of modern society.

Taken literally the phrase “equality of opportunity” may be (and of course is) interpreted to mean that all individuals should have the same advantages (or suffer no particular disadvantages) in the “race” for the goods of this world. The corollary, as we all know, is that it is government’s job to see to it that individual advantages and disadvantages be cancelled out as far as possible so that the race is “fair.” This is perhaps the main reason that we have “big government” today: with every attempt to eradicate all the little differences in life which make for inequality of opportunity, the government has grown larger.

Despite the attempt to lend respectability to the expression “equality of opportunity,” it is the simplistic meaning of equality which has prevailed; we are being steam-rolled by it. From the New Deal to Brown vs. Board of Education to Baker vs. Carr to the Great Society to Women’s Lib and Gay Liberation, the march toward uniformity goes on. And lately, for the first time in our history, we have been asked to give the equality principle formal and explicit Constitutional status in the form of the Equal Rights Amendment.

Recent events have suggested that the egalitarian Zeitgeist in America is currently on the wane. If so, we have no reason to be embarrassed at such a development. One does not have to deny a basic equality among men in order to resist the various forces which would reduce us to a bland uniformity. Nor does it take a refined intellect to perceive that vulgar egalitarianism represents a distinct threat to the liberties Americans have long cherished as fundamental to their heritage. An instinctive preference for liberty is quite in keeping with our national character. The American ethos has been informed far more by the principle of liberty than of equality, and not even the Declaration of Independence tells us otherwise.


1.   Willmoore Kendall, “Basic Issues Between Conservatives and Liberals,” Contra Mundum, edited by Nellie D. Kendall (New Rochelle, N.Y.: Arlington House), p. 579.

2.   Jonathan Elliot, ed., The Debates in the Several State Conventions on the Adoption of the Federal Constitution as Recommended by the General Convention, in 1787. 5 vols. (New York: Burt Franklin, 1966), II, 133. The speaker cited is Samuel Nason of Massachusetts.

3.   Cecelia Kenyon, The Antifederalists. (New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1966), p. 262. The speaker cited is Patrick Henry of Virginia.

4.   J. Franklin Jameson, The American Revolution Considered as a Social Movement (Boston: Beacon Press, 1959). Originally printed in 1926, this work exerted a powerful influence on later historical research.

5.   It should be noted that for the purposes of this essay the distinction between soul and mind is of secondary importance in its implications.

6.   By no means, however, have all the interpretations of the Declaration’s famous clause been simplistic equalitarian efforts. Some of the more perceptive students of the equality principle (such as Harry Jaffa and Charles Kesler) have concluded that it does not imply any sort of leveling at all. Rather, they contend, it suggests a basic equality of natural rights, viz., life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Thus, the argument goes, “the doctrine of Equality” is the central principle of the American Experience, rooted as it is in the basic equality of man. (Charles Kesler, “A Special Meaning of the Declaration of Independence,” National Review XXXI, No. 27 (July 6, 1979), pp. 850859) As attractive as this argument may be, it suffers from several weaknesses. First, the Declaration of Independence itself does not explicitly give any content to its famous equality clause. Second, the priority of equality to liberty as an end is not established. That is, we may concede for argument’s sake that equality may have had to some of the Fathers a certain priority to liberty as a means to an end (as surgery may be prior to health, for example), but certainly not in the sense of being of greater importance to them, a point clearly manifest in the Constitution’s preamble.

7.   The phrase has been used on countless occasions, not only by various liberals but by many respected non-equalitarians as well. To give just one instance, no less an authority than Harry Jaffa has been cited (by his devotee, Charles Kesler) as arguing in the name of opportunity that “The purpose of the (athletic) race is to find out who is the fastest, and this can be done only if the start of the race is fair.” (Kesler, p. 858)


The American Tradition of Equality

1. It is a very limited kind of equality that is avowed. Equality before the law and an equality of rights subsume the various expressions of it.

2. It assumes a negative role for government. This theme occurs repeatedly: Congress shall make no law . . . ; No bill of attainder . . . ; No title of nobility . . . shall be granted.
      The impact of this is positive, though the statements are negative. It means that men are freed from the restraints of fixed classes and orders, that they can use their energies to achieve their ends, so long as they do not violate the equal rights of others in doing so.

3. It in no way prescribes that men shall cease to make distinctions nor that differences will cease to exist. On the contrary, in the absence of legally prescribed positions, there may be as many differences of degree as there are individuals.

4. Such a conception of equality is consonant with liberty; indeed, it is a concomitant of the greatest liberty.

Clarence Carson, The American Tradition

Dr. Bordelon is Chairman, Department of Social Studies, St. Thomas Episcopal School, Houston, Texas.

“Equality of opportunity, far from being a matter of settled doctrine amongst us, is a basic issue between the Liberals among us and the Conservatives among us.”[1] As arresting as this insight by Willmoore Kendall may be, it is nonetheless an understatement: the extent to which America is dedicated to “equality of opportunity” is not merely a basic difference between liberals and conservatives, it is the basic difference.

Considering that the debate over egalitarianism has been at the heart of American political dialogue for at least half a century now, it would seem that both the meaning of equality and its place in the American political tradition would be firmly established. But it is not so. Although many observers, sophisticated and unsophisticated alike, have attempted to link “the equality principle” with our Founding Fathers, the connection is still dubious, mainly because the Fathers were far more fond of talking about liberty than about equality.

The priority of liberty to our nation’s Founders is clear. If the various documents of the last quarter of eighteenth-century American history are examined carefully, the reader will find them filled with references to the effect that liberty is the “greatest good,”[2] or that the preservation of liberty is “the most valuable end of government,”[3] or that government exists “to secure the blessings of liberty.” This last reference is, of course, taken from the preamble to the Constitution, the most solemn statement of promises that we Americans have ever made to each other. In fact, references in late eighteenth-century American political literature proclaiming a great love for liberty are so numerous that painstaking research is not needed to find many of them. We may wonder what the Fathers meant by liberty, or whether liberty may be properly regarded as an end in itself, or should instead be regarded as a means of achieving some greater good. But whatever our uncertainty, the fact remains that in the late 1700s many Americans did pronounce liberty to be one of life’s greatest goods, especially in that all-important listing of ends in the Constitution’s preamble.

The Importance of Liberty

By contrast, formal and explicit statements maintaining that equality is a goal of American life are few and far between. Indeed, the leveling spirit which has often been associated with democracy was one of the most oft-mentioned fears of our Founding Fathers. It would be difficult to find any explicit passage stating that it was their object to make America a land of greater equality; it is not difficult to find passages in which the Fathers boldly stated their aim to secure liberty for themselves and their descendants.

This is not to deny the observations of Franklin and Tocqueville that the early United States was a land characterized by a high degree of equality in comparison to the nations of contemporary Europe. Investigations by more recent observers[4] have likewise revealed that certain developments of the Revolutionary period tended to reduce some of the political, social, and economic inequalities of the day. The dispossession of the Tories, the abolition of primogeniture and entail, and the relaxation of property and religious requirements for voting and holding office are all cases in point. On a few occasions some Americans (notably Anti-federalists) even speculated that America would be a healthier place if it were not divided into wealthy families and impoverished masses such as existed in Rome in the century preceding Caesar Augustus.

Nevertheless, even granting these concessions to the importance of an implied equality at the time of the Founding, it is still clear that the Founding Fathers never dedicated themselves to a conscious and active pursuit of the equality principle to a degree comparable to the strength of their devotion to liberty. Liberty was eulogized far more frequently, openly, and forcefully than equality, which was only rarely mentioned by the Fathers with any enthusiasm. The result has been that those who seek an American commitment to the equality “principle” have found themselves almost of necessity depending upon analysis of the most famous statement on equality in our political heritage, the “all men are created equal” clause in the Declaration of Independence.

The great problem with the equality principle as stated in the Declaration of Independence is its brevity. The simple truth is that the equality clause lacks any explicit meaning. The statement is simply too short. Whatever meaning is to be gained from the famous clause must therefore be derived by implication. Consequently, the clause has been subjected to numerous different interpretations by many different advocates of “the doctrine of Equality,” all of them seeking to remake America into a land of equality as they understand it, including the view so often urged upon us that it is our duty, where equality does not exist, to make men equal. There are, of course, other less radical interpretations suggesting that “all men are created equal in the sight of God,” or that “the Americans are equal to the British,” or that “all races are equal to each other,” or any number of other, often ingenious, understandings.

The Ambiguity of Equality

Such interpretations all suffer from the same basic weakness: they are not self-evidently true or “obvious.” It has often been pointed out that the term “self-evident” can have a more philosophical meaning: that is, a self-evident truth may be one in which the truthfulness of the proposition is contained within the meaning of the terms. Nevertheless, even granting the merits of this argument, it does not explain the tremendous power that the equality clause has exercised over the minds of men.

To explain the power of the assertion we must understand it as self-evident not in philosophical terms but in terms of the obvious. That is, we must somehow find some meaning of the equality clause which can explain why all who ponder it are instinctively inclined to accept it as obvious, or as “self-evident.” The forcefulness of the statement is lost unless it contains a meaning which is clearly true, and even more than that, pertains equally to every member of the human race, in all places and at all times in human history. Even more, the meaning must be un affected by the manifold differences among men including their varying talents, intelligence levels, nationalities, races, and genders as well as a host of other distinctions too numerous to mention.

Without in any way denying this tremendous variety of distinguishing features, we may note at least two simple ways in which the basic equality of men is generally conceded. First, there is little dispute that all men are equal in that every man has one and only one body. Every man, always and everywhere, is equal to every other man in bodily number; every man has exactly one body to nourish and use and, eventually, lose, in this world. Yet despite the manifest clarity of this rather simple observation, it is rarely uttered as a political statement. When men come to interpret the “all men are created equal” clause, they generally prefer to devise novel interpretations (often formulated to serve ulterior purposes). These intellectual exercises are not necessary. The assertion of the bodily equality of all men, simple as it is, is not barren of practical political implications, and in fact can be taken to be the starting point of social contract theory. The bodily equality of men may well be regarded as the basis of the Lockean natural rights to life and property, i.e., sustenance.

The second basic equality of all men is spiritual rather than physical. Although men disagree about the exact character of man’s spiritual powers, few are willing to contest that man is endowed with a nonphysical faculty of some kind, whether it be understood as soul or intellect. And as in the physical sense, this conception of equality has a mathematical simplicity: every man has one soul or intellect, and one is clearly equal to one. Although this argument may be regarded with justice as commonplace, it nonetheless deserves mention because it is asserted far less often in connection with the equality clause than is the more vague contention that “all men are equal in the sight of God.” From the clearly defined belief that every man is endowed with a soul come very definite implications which preclude the propriety of treating men as if they were animals.[5] That is, if man is dignified by a spirit which informs his very being, then the concentration camps and other cruelties of twentieth-century totalitarianism are clearly indefensible. Viewed in the light of such implications, the Declaration’s assertion of a right to “the pursuit of happiness” may then be construed as meaning that each man should have the freedom to attempt to fulfill both his bodily and his spiritual needs.

What Equality Isn’t

The simplicity of such fundamental interpretations of the equality principle may seem to leave open the possibility of an inexhaustible number of political implications, but it is important to consider certain meanings which do not seem to be implied, particularly when such meanings have been given wide circulation in recent decades. First, the clause itself does not specify any concrete way in which all men may be regarded as equal. For that matter, it does not even go so far as to suggest any ways in which men ought to be equal. Second, the clause does not contain any implication that men should be made equal in ways in which they are not already equal. And third, there is no hint that government should take up the job of the Creator and make men equal; there is no evidence that the welfare state is hidden in the expression “all men are created equal.” In short, there is no implication whatsoever that equality is itself a goal or end of government or of life in society.[6] In fact, even the Declaration argues that government exists to secure liberty and not equality, clearly implying liberty as an end of government action.

It can be argued that the Declaration was and should be revered at least as much for its role in securing our liberty or independence from England as for its famous statement on equality. This argument is all the more plausible since the Declaration connects government far more directly with liberty than with equality: liberty is one of the three basic rights listed in the Declaration as being the objects of protection by legitimate action. Thus also the Bill of Rights was cherished by its advocates as a bulwark of liberty, a point made often by its most zealous proponents. And even Lincoln sought for the slave not equality so much as liberty. Perhaps Lincoln’s most significant political act was the Emancipation Proclamation, a gesture which sought to free the slaves, not to make them equal to the whites. The opposite of slavery is liberty, not equality.

The March Toward Uniformity

For some decades now people have concluded that mere emancipation has not been sufficient—for our various “underprivileged” groups to be truly free, it is argued, they must be on an equal footing with “mainstream” Americans politically, socially, and economically. Thus in the twentieth century we have seen an enormous effort made to secure these equalities for our various “disadvantaged” citizens so that they will eventually enjoy full “equality of opportunity” with the nation’s more established citizens.

But there is tremendous confusion over the use of the phrase “equality of opportunity,” which is often used in terms of an athletic footrace.[7] Although at first glance this metaphor may seem simple enough, a little thought makes the comparison confusing. Everyone is agreed as to what is “fair” in an athletic contest: all the participants should begin the race at the same starting point and begin to run at the same time. However, the concept “equality of opportunity” is not so clear when it is applied to the operations of individuals involved in the manifold activities of modern society.

Taken literally the phrase “equality of opportunity” may be (and of course is) interpreted to mean that all individuals should have the same advantages (or suffer no particular disadvantages) in the “race” for the goods of this world. The corollary, as we all know, is that it is government’s job to see to it that individual advantages and disadvantages be cancelled out as far as possible so that the race is “fair.” This is perhaps the main reason that we have “big government” today: with every attempt to eradicate all the little differences in life which make for inequality of opportunity, the government has grown larger.

Despite the attempt to lend respectability to the expression “equality of opportunity,” it is the simplistic meaning of equality which has prevailed; we are being steam-rolled by it. From the New Deal to Brown vs. Board of Education to Baker vs. Carr to the Great Society to Women’s Lib and Gay Liberation, the march toward uniformity goes on. And lately, for the first time in our history, we have been asked to give the equality principle formal and explicit Constitutional status in the form of the Equal Rights Amendment.

Recent events have suggested that the egalitarian Zeitgeist in America is currently on the wane. If so, we have no reason to be embarrassed at such a development. One does not have to deny a basic equality among men in order to resist the various forces which would reduce us to a bland uniformity. Nor does it take a refined intellect to perceive that vulgar egalitarianism represents a distinct threat to the liberties Americans have long cherished as fundamental to their heritage. An instinctive preference for liberty is quite in keeping with our national character. The American ethos has been informed far more by the principle of liberty than of equality, and not even the Declaration of Independence tells us otherwise.


1.   Willmoore Kendall, “Basic Issues Between Conservatives and Liberals,” Contra Mundum, edited by Nellie D. Kendall (New Rochelle, N.Y.: Arlington House), p. 579.

2.   Jonathan Elliot, ed., The Debates in the Several State Conventions on the Adoption of the Federal Constitution as Recommended by the General Convention, in 1787. 5 vols. (New York: Burt Franklin, 1966), II, 133. The speaker cited is Samuel Nason of Massachusetts.

3.   Cecelia Kenyon, The Antifederalists. (New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1966), p. 262. The speaker cited is Patrick Henry of Virginia.

4.   J. Franklin Jameson, The American Revolution Considered as a Social Movement (Boston: Beacon Press, 1959). Originally printed in 1926, this work exerted a powerful influence on later historical research.

5.   It should be noted that for the purposes of this essay the distinction between soul and mind is of secondary importance in its implications.

6.   By no means, however, have all the interpretations of the Declaration’s famous clause been simplistic equalitarian efforts. Some of the more perceptive students of the equality principle (such as Harry Jaffa and Charles Kesler) have concluded that it does not imply any sort of leveling at all. Rather, they contend, it suggests a basic equality of natural rights, viz., life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Thus, the argument goes, “the doctrine of Equality” is the central principle of the American Experience, rooted as it is in the basic equality of man. (Charles Kesler, “A Special Meaning of the Declaration of Independence,” National Review XXXI, No. 27 (July 6, 1979), pp. 850859) As attractive as this argument may be, it suffers from several weaknesses. First, the Declaration of Independence itself does not explicitly give any content to its famous equality clause. Second, the priority of equality to liberty as an end is not established. That is, we may concede for argument’s sake that equality may have had to some of the Fathers a certain priority to liberty as a means to an end (as surgery may be prior to health, for example), but certainly not in the sense of being of greater importance to them, a point clearly manifest in the Constitution’s preamble.

7.   The phrase has been used on countless occasions, not only by various liberals but by many respected non-equalitarians as well. To give just one instance, no less an authority than Harry Jaffa has been cited (by his devotee, Charles Kesler) as arguing in the name of opportunity that “The purpose of the (athletic) race is to find out who is the fastest, and this can be done only if the start of the race is fair.” (Kesler, p. 858)


The American Tradition of Equality

1. It is a very limited kind of equality that is avowed. Equality before the law and an equality of rights subsume the various expressions of it.

2. It assumes a negative role for government. This theme occurs repeatedly: Congress shall make no law . . . ; No bill of attainder . . . ; No title of nobility . . . shall be granted.
      The impact of this is positive, though the statements are negative. It means that men are freed from the restraints of fixed classes and orders, that they can use their energies to achieve their ends, so long as they do not violate the equal rights of others in doing so.

3. It in no way prescribes that men shall cease to make distinctions nor that differences will cease to exist. On the contrary, in the absence of legally prescribed positions, there may be as many differences of degree as there are individuals.

4. Such a conception of equality is consonant with liberty; indeed, it is a concomitant of the greatest liberty.

Clarence Carson, The American Tradition