Equality and the Declaration of Independence

Unpublished article written by Merrill Ring

The conservatives, given their total commitment to freedom as the political value, read the Declaration of Independence as nothing more than an assertion of freedom.

What they ignore is that while the Declaration announces and justifies the claimed freedom of the colonies from British rule, it does not otherwise treat freedom as the sole, not even the major, value for the people of the colonies.

The Declaration opens with a brief paragraph noting that the colonies were in this document declaring themselves free from the political bonds that tied them to Britain. It goes on to say that an explanation and defense of breaking away from its mother country is needed. In the 2nd paragraph, the Declaration begins that explanation.

It opens with words familiar to Americans: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal".˛ What is so widely overlooked, especially by conservatives espousing freedom in every aspect of life, is that when the time comes to defend the act of declaring political freedom, the very first thing that is said in that defense rests upon the natural equality of all men. It is implied that remaining under British rule would not allow the colonists to achieve the natural state of equality with each other and with others. Hence independence, self-rule, is declared.

What form of political life is suitable for a people committed to idea that all men are created equal? Obviously a democracy.

It took more than a decade that included a war to achieve independence and a failed try at a workable political arrangement before the founders established a Constitution that satisfied them as roughly meeting the requirement that everyone be thought of as equal. It is not easy, however, to be clear and certain what constitutes the translation of the fundamental thought that all men are created equal into practical, democratic terms. Only slowly did we come to see that more was required than the founders realized. Slavery had to be overcome - women had to acquire political rights - and several other developments were necessary (and there are other conditions that have not yet been realized in practice.) In short, we did not become a full democracy with the creation and acceptance of the Constitution.

In the attempt to express constitutionally the thought that we are equal, there was an issue over and above the failure to confront slavery and the place of women that largely escaped the founders. What should be done about the role of wealth in a democracy?

No doubt the founders did not deeply consider that problem for several reasons. They themselves were men of wealth and since they were trying to set out what makes for the common good, they assumed that wealth was not a major issue for a democratic government.

More importantly, wealth at that time was largely in land ownership. The wealthy owned land and the tools to work it ¬ the poor did not. What they did not realize was that at the same time as we were becoming a country, there was a major change in the economic life of England and soon elsewhere. A new form of capitalism, industrial capitalism, was just getting underway in Britain. The nature of capitalism itself was not understood ¬ the first great explanation of that type of economy ¬ Adam Smithąs The Wealth of Nations - was published in 1776, the same year as the Declaration of Independence.

Our founders, who had substantial knowledge about and interest in political theory and political history, but they had no glimmer of modern economic life. There is thus nothing to be found in our Constitution about the economic system that was springing up in Britain and no thought given to the possibility that the great wealth created by modern capitalism would cause problems for the asserted equality of men and the democratic form of government that was being created to achieve that equality.

Thus we today cannot look to the founders and to our basic political document for guidance on how to maintain the fundamental assumption that we are equal. And it is surely obvious that from the Gilded Age (say 1890 to 1933) that vastly increasing wealth, and the power it confers, has been the chief tension in our political and economic lives. Today we have reached a state of inequality among our citizens that rivals that of the Gilded Age, undermining the assertion of the Declaration of Independence that all men are created equal. That circumstance was temporarily improved by the election of FDR in 1932. But the resurgence of the plutocrats beginning about 1970 has overwhelmed that attempt to re-establish equality as a fundamental value of the country. The talk these days is about how far the country has lost its democratic character and become instead an oligarchy, a plutocracy. The next several years will make that the basic issue of our political lives.