Michael S. Swisher
Michael S. Swisher is chairman of the board of Religion and Society, the foundation that publishes The St. Croix Review.
Bugaboos of the Chattering Class — Egalitarianism
No phrase has ever been more cruelly torn from its context — and with malice aforethought — than the claim of the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal.”
Quoted more fully, the Declaration’s assertion is “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 . . .”
A fuller reading makes it clear that the Declaration advances claim that all men are created equal in ability or character. The Founders recognized that they were not, and that ordinary social and economic inequalities, due to innate differences in ability or character, were natural, normal, and inevitable.
The Declaration is first and foremost a legal document. It claims equality of — a claim, not a sociological, anthropological, or psychological one. Moreover, the rights are — that is, they cannot be alienated — sold, bartered, or given away — because someone entitled to them shall have moved from old England to the New World.
The grievance of the colonists was that taxes — the stamp tax, the tea tax, etc. — had been imposed upon them by the parliament at Westminster, an assembly in which they were not represented. Hence the slogan, “no taxation without representation.” It was a principle based on the main non-religious issue of the English civil war (1642-1649). Charles I had attempted to levy “ship money” by royal prerogative, without the consent of Parliament. Unlike previous levies, which had been confined to coastal towns and were raised only in time of war, he did so in peacetime and extended the tax to inland areas. This provoked strong resistance; some local officials refused assistance to collection of the tax. The Petition of Right, written by Sir Edward Coke, complained:
“Your subjects have inherited this freedom, that they should not be compelled to contribute to any tax, tallage, aid, or other like charge not set by common consent, in parliament.”
Extra-parliamentary taxation was effectively ended by the Long Parliament of 1640. After the “Glorious Revolution” of 1689, it was formally prohibited by the English Bill of Rights.
All of this history was much more familiar to the Founders in 1776 than it is to Americans today. The point of the claim that “all men are created equal” was simply to argue that Englishmen, under English law, were equally entitled to representation in any assembly that levied taxes on them, whether they were resident in England or in its colonies.
The argument for levying taxes on the colonies was that they were needed to pay for the defense of the colonies during what we call the French and Indian War, which was in fact just the North American theatre of what in Europe is known as the Seven Years’ War. That they may have been needed for this purpose was not in dispute. Englishmen in England were taxed to pay for the Seven Years’ War, but they were represented in the Parliament that levied the tax. Colonists in America were not. From their point of view the taxes levied on them were as objectionable as ship money had been to the people of England in the time of Charles I.
The Declaration is therefore a sort of American version of the Petition of Right. Jefferson was an admirer of Coke and undoubtedly saw the parallel. His high-flown language about equality was meant to make the case against George III on behalf of English subjects in North America in the same way that Coke’s Petition of Right made the case against Charles I on behalf of English subjects in England. The colonists’ objection was that English subjects, wheresoever domiciled within English jurisdiction, should have equal rights under English law.
Jefferson has often been ridiculed for proclaiming equality while himself being a slaveholder. This argument was made even in his time; as Samuel Johnson wrote in his pamphlet, Taxation no Tyranny (1775), “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty from the drivers of negroes?” In the present climate of cultural warfare there have been calls to remove statues of Jefferson from university campuses as Hofstra and the University of Missouri, among others.
The plain historical fact, however, is that Jefferson never intended to proclaim the equality of negro slaves or “Indian savages” with free whites. Jefferson’s observations in his make quite clear that he did not believe them to be equals with whites in ability or character. The Indians he regards as primitives, having some admirable and some frightful qualities, but above all, as formidable enemies. He despairs of the intelligence of blacks; he faults black slavery principally because it brings out lamentable tendencies of laziness and petty tyranny among whites. These remarks are striking for their candor, and no more flattering to Jefferson’s own class than they are to other races. The only sensible view is that he was a man of his own time and not of ours. It is a pity he could not have had a conversation with Thomas Sowell or Clarence Thomas, which might have changed his mind.
Levelling egalitarians use the unfortunate history of American race relations as a pretext to inflame envy and to promote the belief that true justice requires an equality of outcomes. The rejoinder of some, even on the right, is to call instead for “equality of opportunity.” Yet this, too, calls for a levelling — it is merely an insistence on all having the same starting line, rather than all ending at the same goal. Individual differences — never mind race, creed, color, etc. — make it impossible for all to have equal beginnings. All that equality of rights means is that everyone must observe the same rules. Any levelling, at any point, is an abridgment of liberty. As the disillusioned French socialist Alphonse-Louis Constant wrote in 1870:
“Liberty, Equality, Fraternity! Three words which seem to shine and are in fact full of shadow! . . . Liberty necessarily manifests inequality, and equality is a levelling process that does not permit liberty, because the heads that rise higher than others must always be forced down to the mean. The attempt to establish equality and liberty together produce an interminable struggle . . . that makes fraternity among men impossible.”
Rather than paying mindless lip service to egalitarianism, as (for example) the followers of Harry Jaffa do, those of us on the right should heed the wisdom of Russell Kirk:
“Throughout history, progress of every sort, cultural and economic, has been produced by the desire of men for inequality. Without the possibility of inequality, a people continue on the dreary level of bare subsistence, like Irish peasants; granted inequality, the small minority of men of ability turn barbarism into civilization. Equality benefits no one. It frustrates men of talent; and it reduces the poor to a poverty still more abject. In a densely populated civilized state, it means near-starvation for the poor. For inequality produces the wealth of civilized communities . . .” *
 Les Portes de l’avenir (unpublished manuscript, 1870; quoted by Christopher McIntosh, Eliphas Lévi and the French Occult Revival (London, 1972: Rider & Company), p. 142.
 Russell Kirk, The Conservative Mind from Burke to Eliot. (2001: 7th ed., Gateway Publishing).