Equality and American Democracy

Why Politics Trumps Economics

Evicted: Robert Lindneux’s 1942 The Trail of Tears. "The Trail of Tears" / Bridgeman Images

Since the trend toward rising economic inequality in the United States became apparent in the 1990s, scholars and commentators have heatedly debated its causes and consequences. What has been less evident is a vigorous positive discussion about what equality means and how it might be pursued.

Up through the middle of the nineteenth century, Americans saw equality and liberty as mutually reinforcing ideals. Political equality, shored up by economic equality, was the means by which democratic citizens could secure their liberty. The Declaration of Independence treats the equal capacity of human beings to make judgments about their situations and those of their communities as the basis for popular government and identifies the people’s shared right to alter or abolish existing political institutions as the only true security for their freedom. And Abraham Lincoln famously summed up the founding as the birth of a nation “conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”

As the historian James Hutson has shown, many of the founders understood the achievement of political liberty to require some meaningful degree of economic equality. One of the most important policy achievements of the era was the elimination in most states of primogeniture laws, a favorite cause of Thomas Jefferson. Thomas Paine advocated giving a cash grant to every man and woman on turning 21 and an annual pension to every person aged 50 and older, both to be funded through an estate tax. And even John Adams, who thought that the franchise should be limited to property holders, nonetheless believed that class should be defined as broadly as possible in order to avoid turning the new country into an oligarchy. In May 1776, he wrote to a fellow politician, “The only possible Way then of preserving the Ballance of Power on the side of equal Liberty and public Virtue, is to make the Acquisition of Land easy to every Member of Society: to make a Division of the Land into Small Quantities, So that

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