Monday, June 24, 2019

Equality as the Primary Moral Concept of American Government

In 1856, before his presidency or the beginning of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln said:

Our government rests in public opinion. Whoever can change public opinion, can change the government, practically just so much. Public opinion, or [on?] any subject, always has a “central idea,” from which all its minor thoughts radiate. That “central idea” in our political public opinion, at the beginning was, and until recently has continued to be, “the equality of men.” (Basler 1953, vol. II, 385; see also Jaffa 1982, chap. XIV).

Many would consider liberty, or freedom, to be the fundamental moral concept on which our government was founded. Freedom, however, has little meaning outside of one’s moral concept of justice.


“It is indeed the self-imposed ethical or moral foundations of government that change mere obedience to the coercive powers of government into a sense of consensual responsibility for a moral duty, a just order, the common good, or human rights. ”

Freedom can mean, simply license, the absence of any social obligation or moral constraint. Being a free moral agent does not necessarily mean that one will choose to be moral. Freedom does not address the need to maintain order, establish justice, or provide for the general welfare. Nor does freedom provide much protection from the coercive powers of government unless it means “liberty for all” (Basler 1953, vol. IV, 168–69). Indeed, what we often desire is freedom from the arbitrary will of others.

When Jefferson put forth the ideals of our country in the Declaration of Independence, his first assertion, his primary self-evident truth, was that “all men are created equal.” The unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness were thus put within an ethical context of equality and reciprocity. Jefferson and Lincoln both understood universal equality to be the primary moral concept of American constitutional democracy.

Others have also understood universal equality to be the primary moral concept. Marvin Meyers in his book on James Madison, The Mind of the Founder, concluded that, “in Madison’s view of man,” equality was the fundamental term (1981, xxii). Alexis de Tocqueville, in Democracy in America (1835–1840), “advanced the influential thesis that equality is the fundamental theme and characteristic of American civilization” (Davis 1990, 11).

Alexis de Tocqueville


Tocqueville noted that even tyrants value freedom, but only for themselves. He also understood that equality is not an extrinsic leveling term but conveys an inherent mutual respect which also implies an equality of political freedom. David Brion Davis, a prominent historian of the institution of slavery, has even concluded that the real anthesis of slavery is not freedom but equality (Davis 1990, 29). Even the great reformers, such as the women suffragettes and the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., did not repudiate these principles, but urged us to live up to them and place them into practice.

G. K. Chesteron wrote, however, that the belief in human equality is not “some crude fairy tale about all men being equally tall or equally tricky” (see McWilliams 1979,184). It is not like a Procrustean bed of Greek mythology into which all persons are forced to fit by stretching them on a rack or cutting off their legs. For Jefferson, universal equality was instead a moral assertion—an assertion that affirmed both his own humanity and his own individuality against tyranny. Using fable and analogy, in the manner of George Orwell, one could say that if you are a mallard and don’t like ducks or duckhood, then there is going to be an inherent problem with your own self-affirmation by definition. This is one sense in which Jefferson’s assertion that “all men are created equal” could be considered a self-evident truth. It is an affirmation of our own humanity. It is this recognition of his own humanity, however, that allowed Jefferson to also assert his own individuality, not by a “will to power” or coercion, but by inverting that to a resistance to the tyranny of others. By recognizing the moral agency of others, as well as asserting our own mature responsible personality, there opens up the possibility of deciding political issues by the deliberation of democratic constitutional and legislative processes, rather than by simple coercion, domination, or privilege.

The future of American government still rests on public opinion. It rests on our understanding and support for the moral foundations of constitutional democracy and our ability to communicate and preserve such an understand effectively. This is important, for the enjoyment of individual freedom and the progress of human liberty are not inevitable. They are contingent, to a large degree, on our willingness and ability as moral agents to place our free will within ethical constraints. It is indeed the self-imposed ethical or moral foundations of government that change mere obedience to the coercive powers of government into a sense of consensual responsibility for a moral duty, a just order, the common good, or human rights. In United States constitutional democracy these ethical concepts all relate historically to the “central idea” of universal equality.

Complete Essay with references from my book, Moral and Political Philosophy.
James Rutherford, M.D,

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