It seems the word equality is used so many times that seems to shape the very debate of our modern political thinking. The writer of this article (http://www.cnn.com/2011/OPINION/07/08/mills.debt.dream/index.html?iref=allsearch), Nicolaus Mill, wants to leave the impression that America was founded on the idea of establishing a egalitarian society but that is false. Its easy to take to take the same word and use one its synonyms in order to leave the impression you want on a reader and the impression this article leaves is that the founders were trying to establish some kind of egalitarian society. The manor in how this one word is used seems to mean so much in our modern political debate that it seems to alter the entire debate itself. A good example is how conservatives try to twist egalitarian equality around in order to destroy its socialist implications but if they actually understood how it was used originally in the Declaration of Independence we would not have to do that.
The actual title of this article is correct in that America was not necessarily founded on the idea of wealth accumulation but on equality but this article’s use of the word equality was not how it was used in the Declaration of Independence. In order to understand the original meaning of the word equality we have to understand the historical influences that shaped the thinking of Thomas Jefferson.
The Declaration of Independence expresses and establishes the ideas of equality that we have built our society around but these ideas were not the ideas of Thomas Jefferson himself. The ideas expressed in it probably reflected the then current waive of ideas originally established by political philosophers like John Locke in his own Two Treatise of Government. It is in this book that the word equality was first used almost a hundred years before the Declaration of Independence was written. It was not referring to economic equality but ‘being the Equal Right that every Man hath, to his natural Freedom, without being subjected to the will or Authority of another man’ (p. 304) which is the one synonym of that word that actually guarantees any kind of real freedom and liberty. In a society where each person has equal authority no person can be subject to the authority of another so no person can be restricted by the other which allows us to have a great deal of freedom. These two kinds of equality are not compatible with one another because a world of equality of wealth may produce an egalitarian society but without the equality of authority the freedom of each person can not be guaranteed. The equality of wealth does not produce any kind of freedom.
In order to show this it is necessary to compare the Declaration of Independence with Locke’s own work known as Two Treatise of Government. The version I am using is published by Cambridge University Press and edited by Peter Laslett and I will be using the actual page numbers from the Cambridge University Edition so you, the reader, can easily find the text in that edition. It would be simply to confusing to attempt to use the original page numbers from the original work since there are to many editions of this work in existence.
The very first paragraph of the Declaration of Independence declares the principle in which the United States was using to justify the separation from Great Britain which is the basic natural right to establish a government. This comes from Locke’s own idea that the people are at liberty to erect a new government as in “In these cases and the like Cases, when the Government is dissolved, the people are at liberty to provide for themselves, by erecting a new Legislature, differing from the other, by the change of Persons, or Form, or both at they shall find it most for their safety and good” (p. 411).
The next paragraph opens up with a more famous and elegant line about the rights of people, what they are, and where they come from. It is “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”. You will find a parallel idea in the Two Treatise of Government when it says “A state also of Equality, wherein all the power and Jurisdiction is reciprocal, no one having more than another: there being nothing more evident, than the creatures of the same species and rank promiscuously born to all the same advantages of nature, and the use of the same facilities, should be equal one amongst another without subordination or subjugation, unless the Lord and Master of them all, should by manifest Declaration of his will set one above the other, and confer on him by an evident and clear appointment an undoubted right to dominion and Sovereignty” (p. 269). Here Locke is saying that in nature no animal of the same species is superior to the other and the only way you can undo that is if the creator made one above another. It is the state of equality that seem to exist in nature that allows for our liberty to exist since no member of a species has any natural authority over another and man being a species in of himself also has this same state of equality and liberty that every other member of a species seems to have. In other words, our freedom is self-evident just like the Declaration of Independence said it was!
The very next sentence of the same documents also parallels Locke’s idea that the point of government was to preserve a person’s property of which he considered life, liberty, and estates. Locke wrote “and is willing to join in society with others who are already united or have a mind to unite for the mutual preservation of Lives, Liberties, and Estates” (p. 350). That sentence states “That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men” those rights were, of course, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The same idea is also reiterated in the Two Treatise of Government when it says “The great chief end therefore, of mens uniting into commonwealths, and putting themselves under government, is the preservation of their property” of which Locke defined as “Lives, Liberties, and Estates” (p. 350-351). Locke also wrote “the end of law is not to abolish or restrain, but to preserve and enlarge freedom” which is similar to the Declaration’s stated purpose of government which is to secure our rights (p. 307).
The very next clause of the same sentence says “deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed” can also be found in the Two Treatise of Government. “the consent of society, over whom no Body can have a power to make Laws, but by their own consent, and by the Authority received from them;” (p. 356). The very next clause states “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” which, again, is stated in Two Treatise as “the people are at liberty to provide for themselves, by erecting a new legislative, differing from the other, by the change of persons, or both as they shall find it most for their safety and good” (p. 411). These are almost two identical ideas in that each person has the right to live under a government that exist for their own benefit, enjoyment, and leisure.
One of the most startling facts is that the sentence “But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new guards for their future security” almost copies directly from the Two Treatise itself when it says “Great mistakes in the ruling part, many wrong and inconvenient Laws, and all the slips of humane frailty will be born by the people, without mutiny or murmur, But if a long train of Abuses, Prevarications, and Artifices, all tending the same way, make the design of visible to the People, and they cannot but feel, what they lie under, and see, whither they are going; ’tis not to be wonder’d, that they should then rouze themselves, and endeavour to put the rule into such hands, which may secure to them the ends for which Government was at first erected;” (p. 415). Locke’s direction of government was one where it was moving away from what it was, according to him, first established for which was the preservation of life, liberty, and estates which he considered a person’s own property is identical to Jefferson’s object of design because despotism, according to Locke, was “and Despotical power over such as have no property at all” (p. 384).
We can see the influence that the writings of John Locke had on Thomas Jefferson so it should be easy to conclude that the meaning of equality was the same one that Locke thought it was which was an equality of power, rank, or authority. As Locke would say in the Two Treatise of Government “I can not be supposed to understand all sorts of Equality;…the equality I there spoke of, as proper to the business at hand, being that equal right every man hath, to his Natural Freedom, Without being subject to the Will or Authority of another Man” (p. 304). When Jefferson wrote “that all men are created equal” he was not referring to economic equality but the equality that Locke illustrated which is the only definition of equality that results in freedom. It is only when each person is equal in authority that each person is free to do as they want because there is no superior authority that can dictate what another person can do. The most cherished freedom we have is freedom of speech but it only exist because no person on this earth has the authority to determine what another person can say or not say. I suppose on a theoretical level that there is an authority somewhere that can silence us by its command alone but no such authority can exist among the human species.