A Memorial Day Reflection on Equality

On Memorial Day, consider honoring those who died for our country by reflecting on the truly exceptional ideals they fought to defend.


Consider, for example, the simple assertion in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal.” To modern ears, the only thing remarkable in the phrase is that it doesn’t explicitly mention that women are included, too.

However, when Thomas Jefferson declared equality to be a “self-evident truth” in 1776, it was a truly radical notion. In “Equality: The Impossible Quest,” Martin van Creveld puts it into perspective. Before 1776, throughout the entire history of the world, “nothing like this had ever been written to serve as the basis for a real-life government.”

Until the founding of the United States, it was common to find societies whose “central value was harmony, not equality,” according to van Creveld. “Social life was to be based on the recognition that all people … have their proper station in life. They should be treated, and should treat others, accordingly.”

Inequality was such an accepted part of the pre-1776 world that in Roman elections upper-class citizens had more votes than anybody else.

Few Americans today could tolerate, or even imagine, such a world.

The only historical examples of societies based on any form of equality were found in ancient Greece more than 2,000 years ago. But they were short-lived, small-scale experiments and provided more confusion than clarity.

Athens became noted for its commitment to political equality and equal treatment before the law. That is something most Americans can embrace, but critics expressed concern that it led to economic inequality.

Sparta took a different approach and focused so heavily on equality of results that all property was confiscated by the state. In the interests of equality, children were even taken from their families to be raised and instructed by the state. If nobody owns anything and nobody has any rights, then all are equal.

That dispute about the nature of equality and how to achieve it continues to this day. A respected philosopher, Adam Swift, shares much of the Spartan view and even worries about the impact of parents reading to their children at night. He cites research showing that this gives their offspring an unfair advantage over other children. Swift stops short of calling for a ban on bedtime stories, but strongly supports shifting the upbringing of children from parents to the government.

Most Americans reject such an extreme obsession with equality of results. They recognize that having government take all private property or raise all children in the name of equality clashes with other important values, including life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. But we still cherish the notion of being created equal with rights no government can trample. Our ongoing challenge, therefore, is to balance the competing demands of equality, freedom and justice.

To meet the challenge, we must appreciate just how remarkable it was for Jefferson and our Founding Fathers to claim the banner of equality as a founding principle of our nation. It’s one of the values that make America truly exceptional. We must also recognize that what Jefferson wrote was the very beginning of the debate on equality, not the final word.

The next chapters are for us to write.

Also see,

The Legitimacy Crisis

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