Equality Explained

"No free government, or the blessings of liberty can be preserved to any people, but by frequent recurrence to fundamental principles."
— George Mason

One of the enduring paradoxes of America is that the principles of our founding have always been the source of our greatest strength and also the font of unending controversy. None of those principles has been more misunderstood than equality. Yet the founder’s whole theory of constitutionalism depends on that idea—but not by itself, and only when properly understood. 

On a recent taping of the Three Whiskey Happy Hour, with co-hosts Steve Hayward and “Lucretia” and fellow guest Jeremy Carl, I may have walked into an intellectual minefield while trying to make a point about this. 

According to the framers’ social compact theory, we are free precisely because we are equal. That is to say, since no human is a god or an angel—because we are all equally members of the same species—no person is entitled to rule another without his consent. Legitimate government must therefore be limited, and devoted principally to protecting our individual natural rights. All of these concepts (along with a few others, such as religious liberty and good moral habits) fit together, and the attempt to remove any one of them would make republican government incoherent. 

Explaining this on the podcast, I intended to say that you can no more remove equality from our constitutional government than you can remove the crankshaft from a car engine and still expect it to work. I misspoke and said you can’t remove the carburetor, which led to some amusement and teasing by Steve and Lucretia. But the point remains: constitutional self-government recognizes human equality and therefore requires consent in order to achieve liberty and the rule of law. They are inextricably connected. 

The other point I made—that if Jefferson had dropped the reference to equality in the Declaration of Independence it would not really have mattered—was not a slip of the tongue, but is perhaps more likely to be misunderstood. What I meant is that while the principles and arguments of the Declaration do indeed underlie and give meaning to the Constitution, the precise language is less important than understanding how it all fits together. What if the Continental Congress had fiddled around even more with Jefferson’s draft and altered the famous sentence containing the phrase “all men are created equal . . .”? Would that have fundamentally changed their understanding of human happiness and the ends of good government? Of course not. 

During the revolutionary era, many of the states incorporated language elaborating the theory of republican government in their state constitutions. The wording is slightly different in each case, but always makes the same point. What if the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence (or Thomas Jefferson himself) had decided to use some of this different language, perhaps less eloquent but still perfectly valid, by declaring: “all human beings are created by God and have the same rights by nature; therefore no person can rule another without his consent.”

That might have provided less inspiration for Abraham Lincoln’s majestic rhetoric, but it would not have altered in the slightest the injustice of slavery or the basis of Lincoln’s arguments against it. Nor would it have changed anything else fundamental to our constitutional government.

What is essential to understand is that today’s radical woke progressives haven’t simply distorted the meaning of equality (and they more or less admit this when they invoke their preferred new term, equity). The progressive Left has corrupted and degraded all of the founder’s principles, because progressives have a radically different conception of human nature and are committed to unlimited power for the ruling class to apportion rights and privileges according to what they ordain as “social justice.”  

Much (though not all) of today’s woke ideology originated with the New Left in the 1960s. Those radicals got their ideas from intellectuals such as Herbert Marcuse, Theodor Adorno, and other students of European neo-Marxism. Their heirs are today’s left-wingers, who despise America which they see as systemically racist, and declare their desire to overhaul our society in the name of diversity, equity, and inclusion. But that critique of America has nothing to do with the ideas of Thomas Jefferson. Precisely to the degree that the modern bureaucratic state no longer operates by consent, protects our natural rights, or treats every individual equally, then to that extent America is no longer a constitutional republic. That’s not the result of the Declaration of Independence, it’s the rejection of it.

The political point is this: defending the founders’ republican principles—all of them—is the best and most effective way to fight our emerging woke tyranny, which categorically rejects those principles—all of them.


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About Glenn Ellmers

Glenn Ellmers' new book, The Narrow Passage: Plato, Foucault, and the Possibility of Political Philosophy, will be published by Encounter this summer. He is the author of The Soul of Politics: Harry V. Jaffa and the Fight for America and the Salvatori Research Fellow of the American Founding at the Claremont Institute. He is also a fellow of the Center for American Greatnsss.

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