Doing Equality in America
Essays Politics Toward a Just Political Economy

Doing Equality in America

Ryan Peterson

This essay is a contribution from our symposium Toward a Just Political Economy. To receive a print copy and read the other essays, order here.

“The idea of equality is used in political discussion both in statements of fact, or what purport to be statements of fact—hat men are equal—and in statements of political principles or aims—that men should be equal, as at present they are not.” —Bernard Williams1

Political equality is a concept that darts back and forth between fact and value, in theory and in practice: “Men are equal,” and “men should be treated equally.” The former implies the latter; the latter works to make the former true. I wish to clarify the origin and possible applications of the concept of political equality in an American context.

In the social American imagination, political equality rhetorically originates with Jefferson’s declaration: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” However, Jefferson conceived it, it is Lincoln’s interpretation of the phrase that definitively determined its popular perception. To explain this interpretation, I could not do better than to quote Lincoln:

I think the authors of that notable instrument intended to include all men, but they did not mean to declare all men equal in all respects. They did not mean to say all men were equal in color, size, intellect, moral development, or social capacity. They defined with tolerable distinctness in what they did consider all men created equal,—equal in certain inalienable rights, among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. This they said, and this they meant. They did not mean to assert the obvious untruth that all were then actually enjoying that equality, or yet that they were about to confer it immediately upon them. In fact, they had no power to confer such a boon. They meant simply to declare the right, so that the enforcement of it might follow as fast as circumstances should permit.2

This conception does not need to be further explained, and it eloquently describes one aspect of equality that is a component of any real political application of it. But it does elude several aspects of the descriptive material aspects of equality which both help inspire the phrase and help to enable a genuine maintenance of equal rights in a political context.

Schumpeter’s Criticism

An American economist from Austria, Joseph Schumpeter, could look at the concept of Equality in mid twentieth century and declare,“Its very meaning is in doubt, and there is hardly any rational warrant for exalting it into a postulate, so long as we move in the sphere of empirical analysis.” Considering Lincoln’s articulation of the principle, Schumpeter wrote:

For instance, it may be permissible to infer from the circumstances in which the Gettsyburg address was delivered that by the “proposition that all men are created free and equal” Lincoln simply meant equality of legal status versus the kind of inequality that is implied in the recognition of slavery. This meaning would be definite enough. But if we ask why that proposition should be morally and politically binding and if we refuse to answer “Because every man is by nature exactly like every other man,” then we can only fall back upon the divine sanction supplied by Christian belief. This solution is conceivably implied in the word “created.”3

Schumpeter’s passage or so of vigorous critique identifies the questions I will consider that form the problem of political equality in an American context: What did the American founders and Lincoln mean by equality? How did they arrive at this conception, descriptively or normatively? And what is the value of that conception, or any conception of political equality to us?

Lincoln identifies one clear meaning: equality of rights. At least in the above passage, he does not identify why it should be morally and politically binding as Schumpeter asks. Schumpeter identifies two possible reasons: we are by nature equal to each other, or our equal creation by God obliges us to give each other equal political rights.

The religious heritage behind the idea of equality is deep, but does not really explain its origin in this applied political context, somewhere halfway between value and fact. Centuries of medieval European scholastic thought regarding profound religious equality between men co-existed with the vast inequalities of feudalism.

God certainly plays a large role in the value of treating people as political equals for John Locke, one of Jefferson’s most significant influences. Schumpeter’s intuition on the role of religion is not entirely wrong.

In his “Second Treatise of Government,” Locke describes our collective relationship to God and its implications on our political relations so:

For men being all the workmanship of one omnipotent, and infinitely wise maker; all the servants of one sovereign master, sent into the world by his order. . .  they are his property, whose workmanship they are, made to last during his, not one another’s pleasure: and being furnished with like faculties, sharing all in one community of nature, there cannot be supposed any such subordination among us, that may authorize us to destroy one another as if we were made for one another’s uses, as the inferior ranks of creatures are for our’s.4

This shared workmanship and lack of a clear identification of a sovereign or natural superior by God, in the context of our equal power over each other in the state of nature, builds a robust normative treatment of equality on top of the descriptive equality in the state of nature.

This religiously derived normativity, derived through Locke or otherwise, did have real use in America. One of the more memorable expressions in writing occurred in a dissent to Dred Scott v. Sanford, the supreme court case in which an enslaved black man unsuccessfully sued for his freedom after he had entered a free state. Justice McLean invoked God in his dissent: “A slave is not a mere chattel. He bears the impress of his Maker, and is amenable to the laws of God and man; and he is destined to an endless existence.”5

Still, Schumpter is mistaken to think this religious conception is the only one grounding equality, descriptively or normatively.

Equality as Observation

Equality as a brute fact was made self evident, to varying degrees, for the American settlers in their way of life and environment. If Jefferson extended it to “all men” in speech, this observation was self-evident on observations of particular men.

An earlier draft of Jefferson’s words in the declaration helps to clarify his statement of equality and how it relates to rights:

We hold these truths to be sacred & undeniable; that all men are created equal & independent, that from that equal creation they derive rights inherent & inalienable.6

In his explanation of Jefferson’s meaning, Lincoln neglects the difference of equal rights being derived from an equal creation as opposed to equal creation simply meaning that all men were created with equal rights regardless of any other.

So, what did equal creation mean? Equality of mental, physical faculties? Equality of outcome across various metrics? Created with actual political equality? Despite the theological language, Jefferson meant equal creation as a genuine thesis of natural history, albeit a natural history incorporating a deistic God; Thomas Paine, similarly, could state in Common Sense, “Mankind being originally equals in the order of creation.”

In correspondence, Jefferson went so far as to claim that based on his experiences and research, he could conclude that Native Americans were “in body and mind equal to the whiteman.”7 He would explain the obvious major differences in outcomes between the two groups with reference to their differing environmental and cultural history. In the same source, he would speculate that though black people were potentially naturally unequal to white people, this might be righted in a few generations. These speculations are not scientifically relevant to us now, but they show that to a surprising extent, he saw equality as material, something more than a moral abstraction.

Tocqueville describes how the French men of the past would not have understood the broad application of this word, like it was used in America and how he used it to discuss equality there:

I have often used the word “equality” in an absolute sense; I have, in addition, personified equality in several places, and so I have come to say that equality does certain things or abstains from certain others. One can affirm that the men of the century of Louis XIV would not have spoken in this way; it would never have come into the mind of any of them to use the word equality without applying it to a particular thing, and they would sooner have renounced the use of it then consented to make equality into a living person.8

What led Jefferson and others to speak of equality so broadly, to see it so generally?

Despite the universalism of all men there is perhaps a reason why America specifically gave birth to such a declaration—the same reason why early social contract thinkers Locke and Hobbes referred to North America to ground their imagined state of nature. Early American material conditions helped to foster equality across several metrics at once, including the political. It certainly did this within Native American tribal groups, but it also enabled it for early American settlers (never everyone, but to a far greater extent and magnitude than the Europe settlers left behind) and the founding Republican social structures within it.

American material conditions and the relations fostered within them could make equality genuinely self-evident in a way it had not been before. The most important material condition, one that Jefferson focused on in his writings and ideals elsewhere, was the equal access to land for the purpose of settling and farming.

In America, the various sorts of equalities blended together and encouraged the habit of using “equality” as an abstract concept in a way not seen before.

This underlying vagueness has continued to this day. I can illustrate the popular use and understanding of the concept with quotes from prominent politicians. The first:

Donald Trump: It's not just wanting to be a champion, you need certain ingredients. They say all men are created equal. It doesn't get any more famous, but, is it really true?

Deborah  Soloman: What do you think?

Donald: It's not true. Some people are born very smart, some people are born not so smart. Some people are born very beautiful and some people are not so you can't say they're all created equal.

Deborah: They're entitled to equal treatment under the law. I think that's what the statement means. It doesn't mean everybody has the same endowments.

Donald: That's correct. The phrase is used often so much and it's a very confusing phrase to a lot of people.9

The second, from Joe Biden:

There has always been a push and a pull between our founding ideals and the forces of inequality. But Independence Day is a celebration of our persistent march toward greater justice—the natural expansion of our founding notion from “all men are created equal” to “all people are created equal and should be treated equally throughout their lives.”10

I think these excerpts illustrate, with worrying vagueness perhaps, current political uses of the term equality. Keeping them in mind while considering historical conceptions will make clear what they could mean and a motivation of the sort of equality that might be valuable.

Ancient Spartan Ideal of Equality

Although the American universal declaration of political equality was new, a celebration of a limited political equality between peers dates back to antiquity. The ancient Greek polis conceived of equality (in practice and in speech) as being between a limited class of citizens. Modern western equality in its real political application is usually between citizens too. But the citizens of the Greek polis co-existed with many slaves and often abundant foreigners. The class of citizens was always more homogeneous and geographically limited than anything in America. But the value did exist in a robust enough way for thinkers and political language of the time to idealize it.

The ancient Spartan republic, unlike Athens, had far more slaves than citizens. The citizen class of ancient Sparta was referred to as the hominoi, literally meaning equals, or those who are alike. The homonoi were a relatively small caste of, at most, several thousand, At the top of Spartan society, they would avoid manual labor for the art of government and war; only they could participate in government as voters and be elected as legislators, standing above the various other Spartan subjects, mostly slaves (helots).

In his work, Lives, Plutarch describes the measures the mythical founder of Sparta—Lycurgus—took to build this equality between citizens into the system beyond just formal legal relationships. Lycurgus took three major measures: the equal redistribution of land between citizens, the discouragement of commerce by replacing the currency with a brittle iron, and a common meal system for citizens through small groups. Membership in these common messes was mandatory for citizens, and one had to pay a monthly fee to belong to them. Upon completion of the mandatory education, men could only become citizens through acceptance in a common mess. Fraternity worked in synergy with equality.

Spartan citizens generated an income through the surplus agricultural product their land generated, as farmed by the helots who were irrevocably attached to the land and even owned by the state. The introduction of iron currency was supposed to make stealing and plundering more difficult, but far more importantly, make more difficult the purchase and stockpiling of luxuries elsewhere in Greece (where iron money was rejected).11

It is worth noting that despite this real ideal (possibly idealized by later historians more than actual Spartans), actual ancient Spartan equality gradually declined. When citizens could no longer pay the fees to be citizens, they and their descendants were forever non-citizens.

Equality in Practice

Jefferson’s federalist political opponents would compare his ideal society to the ancient republic of Sparta to highlight the aspects of his vision that approached what they thought was a “primitive, despotic, pre-commercial social order” that relied on the basis of slave labor, as one historian describes.12 This is an apt comparison as far as the Jeffersonian ideal and the mythical Spartan ideal go; both founders envisioned economic conditions that would foster the sort of material equality that encouraged equal relations between citizens.

Hannah Arendt explains political equality as something we do rather than something are. Rather than being born or created equal, “we become equal as members of a group on the strength of our decision to guarantee ourselves mutually equal rights.”13 Other sorts of equality are not irrelevant here, however. Arendt describes Ancient Greek political equality as existing “only in this specifically political realm, where men met one another as citizens and not as private persons.”14

But there was a state of being equal enough in the private realm, that citizens could enter the public political realm in the first place. This equality consisted of citizens being equal in the minimum possession of enough autonomy and security to enter the public realm on equal grounds. Generic “equality” on its own was possessed between slaves, in their equal poverty and imprisonment in the private realm.

When we say slogans such as “all men are equal” we elude the specificity and locality of the political equality we have in mind. As Arendt describes, “natural man” or “homo,” man in the most general and abstract, originally indicated “someone outside the range of the law and the body politic of citizens, as for instance a slave.”15 An excessive focus on the biological, natural equality between men, though it surely exists in some form, obscures the fact that the political equality we have is the one we construct.

The Value of Political Equality

Why are we interested in political equality? Freedom and equality are sometimes described as contrasting values that we must balance. This is true for a certain sense of each concept. But a space where people can come together as equals enables a certain freedom for those people that would not be possible otherwise. The most important of these spaces is the political realm, from the formal right to vote in elections to participating on an equal basis in all sorts of practical political endeavors. The closer these institutions are to those nominally tied to them, the more practical content there is to these freedoms. A vote counts for more on a smaller scale, that much is obvious.

The modern “town hall” format wherein candidates take questions from selected citizens calls back to the local town halls of early America where the formal, material, and practical equality of citizens was far closer than it is now. These televised ‘town halls’ with a selection of seemingly representative citizens that are treated equally is a simulation of this earlier experience. That may speak to how much the experience has been lost for regular people in anonymous mass democracy.

Formal political equality makes possible a form of life that would not be possible otherwise. Through equal participation in the political realm, we get a chance at equal recognition as acting and thinking beings which enables a unique form of self knowledge and personal development not possible in other realms. If it makes it possible, implants the possibility in the minds of men, it does not guarantee it. For example, deep poverty hinders the development of the faculties and the knowledge necessary to meaningful participate in politics, make informed political decisions, etc. This is reflected today in the decline in voter turnout associated with poverty. Political equality always happens in political institutions but it is not unconnected to economic institutions. People only need enough material autonomy to participate in political institutions as equals. The exact details of this are not timeless, as the Jeffersonian independent farmer ideal shows. But, knowing that equality is something we do more than it is something we are clarifies our task.


1.  Williams, Bernard. “The Idea of Equality,” In Problems of the Self: Philosophical Papers 1956–1972. (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 1973).  230–49. doi:10.1017/CBO9780511621253.016.

2.  Lincoln, Abraham, Political Debates Between Lincoln and Douglas. (Burrows Bros. Co.: Cleveland, 1897). Via, 2001.

3. Joseph A.  Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy. (Harper Perennial, 2008). 254.

4.  John Locke and C. B. Macpherson, Second Treatise of Government. (Hackett Publishing Company, 1980). 9.

5.  McLean, John, "Dissent in Dred Scott v. Sandford (1856)" (1856). Electronic Texts in American Studies. 2.

6.  Julian P. Boyd, The Declaration of Independence: The Evolution of the Text. (Princeton: 1945). 19, quoted in Daniel J. Boorstin, The lost world of Thomas Jefferson. 1960. 61.

7.  “From Thomas Jefferson to Chastellux, 7 June 1785,” Founders Online, National Archives,

8. Alexis De Tocqueville, Democracy in America, trans. Harvey C. Mansfield and Delba Winthrop. (University of Chicago Press, 2000). 457.

9.  Solomon, Deborah (@deborahsolo). 2020. Twitter, January 16, 2017 9:36 AM.

10.  Biden, Joe. “Trump erodes America’s foundation. This Fourth of July, I pledge to rebuild it” NBC News, July 4, 2020. (accessed October 4, 2020)


12.  McCoy, Drew R. The Elusive Republic: Political Economy in Jeffersonian America. Published for the Institute of Early American History and Culture, Williamsburg, Virginia by the University of North Carolina Press, 1980, p 219. 13.  Arendt, Hannah. The Origins of Totalitarianism. *Harcourt, Brace & Company, 1976). 301.

14.  Arendt, Hannah. On Revolution. (Penguin Books, 1990). 31.

15.  Ibid, 107.

Featured image: The Subway painting (1934) by Lily Furedi via Wikimedia Commons.

Ryan Peterson is a student at the University of Chicago. He invites you to follow him on Twitter.