Thomas Jefferson and the Idea of Equality

Well, I spent last year in Washington, and it's very pleasant to be back. Washington, of course, was a place that Thomas Jefferson never liked or put much stock in. To put it bluntly, he had very little faith in the capacities of the Federal Government to do much of anything, at least not after he had left the presidency.

"Where we directed from Washington when to sow and when to reap," he wrote in his autobiography in 1821, "we should soon want bread."

But Washington, being a city that has no sense of irony, has ignored all these insults and has honored Jefferson with a magnificent memorial that is rivaled by only those of Washington and Lincoln.

Washington officials seem to have a special place in their heart for Jefferson, perhaps because they know so little of what he believed in. Jefferson is so important to President William Jefferson Clinton that last year he and Mrs. Clinton held a dinner in Jefferson's honor, to which my wife and I were invited. I hoped it might be a dinner for eight, but it turned out to be a dinner for 180.

It was held on April 12, the day before Jefferson's 251st birthday. Apparently, the administration wanted to celebrate Jefferson's 250th birthday, but forgot about it until the last moment and just got it in before Jefferson turned 251.

At any rate, the President's dinner was a grand occasion. There were no lengthy speeches. The President introduced an impersonator of Jefferson, who neither looked nor sounded like Jefferson looked or presumably sounded. The President seemed a little out of sorts, perhaps because of a gaffe that earlier I had committed in the receiving line.

My wife and I were near the end of the long line of 180 guests whose hands President and Mrs. Clinton were relentlessly shaking. When it came my turn to shake the President's hand, with about a dozen or so guests to go, I decided I would say something other than the usual "How do you do?" Feeling bad for him with all those hands to shake, I said to him, "Well, you don't have much longer."

I can assure you, it wasn't quite what he expected to hear. I know that, because he looked very startled, and he gave me this icy stare. Mrs. Clinton, who was exchanging pleasantries with my wife, suddenly whipped around and likewise glared at me.

It took me a moment to realize what had happened. I mumbled something about only a few more hands to shake and so on. But it was too late.

The deed was done.

Now, I'm sure that President Clinton held his commemorative dinner because he believes that he has a special kinship with Jefferson--for his name, if for no other reason, but also because all politicians seem to want to get right with Jefferson.

Although conservatives and Republicans have usually made Hamilton their hero, many of them have increasingly found affinities with Jefferson. George Will has called Jefferson "the man of the millennium." Massachusetts Governor Weld describes himself as "a Jeffersonian." So did Ronald Reagan. He called upon Jefferson in order to justify his attempts to reduce the size of the Federal Government. Indeed, he urged us all to "pluck a flower from Thomas Jefferson's life and wear it in our soul forever."

But during the past sixty years or so, it has been the Democrats that have made the most of Jefferson. FDR was the one who captured Jefferson for the Democrats. Of course, it was no easy task to turn a man who hated the Federal Government and believed in States rights into a symbol of the New Deal. But the Democrats pulled it off. Roosevelt put Jefferson into many of his speeches.

In 1938, he personally manipulated to have Jefferson replace Lincoln on the three-cent stamp, which was the carrier of nearly every first-class letter in those days, and as an administration, saw to it that Jefferson was taken off the scarce two-dollar bill, where the Republicans had relegated him, and put onto the very popular nickel. And in Jefferson's bicentennial year, 1943, Roosevelt dedicated the Jeffersonian Memorial, which certainly was the high point of this country's celebration of Jefferson.

If you've been to the memorial recently, you'll recall that on the four walls of the temple, there are some stirring quotations from Jefferson. Nothing, however, about minimal government, states rights, or the fear of executive power.

Even today, Jefferson has a special appeal for Democrats. Several years ago, in February 1990, to be exact, two other historians and I received a call from Congressman Steny Hoyer, who was chairman of the Democratic Caucus, inviting us to address the annual meeting of the Caucus, which is composed, as you know, of Democratic Congressmen and Congresswomen who sit in the House of Representatives.

Every year, apparently, the members of the Caucus retreat to a secluded hotel or resort for a couple of days, hold committee meetings, and plan party strategy. Normally, after a busy day of talking and hearing committee reports, the members were used to having some light entertainment in the evening. But this particular year, Congressman Hoyer told us, would be different.

In the winter of 1990, the Democratic Party was in low spirits and needed to get a hold of itself, needed to get back to its roots and reinvigorate its thinking. So instead of dancing girls, or whatever, the Caucus wanted three historians each to talk about one of the Democratic Party's favorite Presidents: Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, and Franklin Roosevelt. We were given ten minutes each.

I was to lead off and talk about Jefferson, the presumed founder of the Democratic Party. Now, it was no easy task summing up Jefferson in ten minutes, especially to modern Democratic Congressmen who have somewhat different ideas about government, especially the Federal Government, from those Jefferson had.

I tried to get the members of the Caucus in a good mood by telling them that in Jefferson's day, the Democratic Caucus, they, the Democratic Caucus, would not just meet to issue committee reports to each other but would actually nominate the Democratic Presidential candidate. That's the part they liked best.

But then I had to tell them, these Democrats, about Jefferson's ideas of minimal government, that he fervently believed that the best government was the one that governed least, that he disliked all Federal taxes, that he had no programs for the cities, that he, in fact, hated all cities and wanted America not to develop any. I also had to tell them that he hated the Supreme Court and was more of a strict constructionist than Robert Bork, that he feared all governmental power and often suggested that government was only a device by which the few attempt to rob, cheat, and oppress the many.

If truth be told, Jefferson had no conception at all of modern state power. Indeed, the United States for him was really just a loosely bound confederation, not all that different from the earlier Articles of Confederation.

He thought that the Federal Government, with a few thousand bureaucrats, was too complicated, he said, too expensive, its offices multiplied unnecessarily. And he immediately cut back the Federalist establishment in a way that Ronald Reagan was never able to.

He believed that the National Government ought to concern itself only with foreign affairs and the mutual relations of the states. All other matters, he said, the principal care of our persons, our property, and our reputation, ought to be left to the states or to what he called private enterprise, which, he said, manages so much better all the concerns to which it is equal.

Well, after I finished telling the members of the Democratic Caucus that Jefferson was a slave-holding aristocrat who suspected that blacks were inferior to whites in body and mind, there did not seem to be much left for the modern Democratic Party to use.

But, of course, there is, and not just for the Democratic Party, but for all of us Americans. Probably the Jeffersonian principle that the twentieth century Democratic Party has been able to exploit most effectively has been the concept of equality. But the modern Democratic Party was not the first to do so, nor has it been the only group to use the idea of equality.

Equality is surely the most exploited and abused idea in American history, and Jefferson, as much as anyone, is the author of that idea.

Jefferson's proposition in the Declaration of Independence that all men are created equal is the most powerful proposition in American history, bar none. Once unleashed by the Revolution, the idea of equality tore through American society and culture with awesome force. It became what Herman Melville sardonically called "the great god absolute, the center and circumference of all democracy." "The spirit of equality," said Melville, "did not merely cull selected champions from the kingly commons, but it spread one royal mantle of humanity over all Americans and brought democratic dignity to even the arm that wields a pick or drives a spike."

Southerners and would-be aristocrats in the North vainly tried to argue that Jefferson could never have meant that all men were literally equal and that they all had equal rights. But that was precisely what most Americans, at least in the North, came to believe. And some came to say not just white men but black men had these equal rights. And some eventually went so far as to say that not just men but women as well had these equal rights.

Within decades following the Declaration of Independence, the United States became the most egalitarian nation in the history of the world, and I believe it remains so today, regardless of its great disparities of wealth.

Indeed, the idea of equality continues to lie at the center of most of our current public debates, at the heart of all of our talk of affirmative action, bell curves, and defenses of elitism.

Both conservatives, like Wilmore Kendall, and liberals, like Gary Wills, have argued that Abraham Lincoln rescued the Declaration of Independence from relative insignificance and made its proposition that all men are created equal the basis of American nationhood.

There is no doubt that Lincoln believed that Jefferson's proposition on equality was the central tenet of American culture. But Lincoln did not make equality the foundation principle of American culture. Equality was already well established in American consciousness, at least in the North, which is why Southerners like John C. Calhoun spent so much time in the decades of the 1830s and 1840s trying to prove that the Declaration's proposition that all men are created equal was the most false and dangerous of all political errors, even though it was a proposition repeated daily from tongue to tongue as an established and incontrovertible truth.

It certainly is the greatest irony of American history that this powerful, nation-defining doctrine of equality should have been articulated by a slave-holding aristocrat. In every obvious respect, Jefferson was the most unlikely of democratic and egalitarian spokesmen, not merely because of the 200 or so slaves that he held throughout his life, but also because of his aristocratic or I suppose what we would call today his elitist tastes--his love of classical literature, his playing of fine music, his obsession with the right wine. He seems to be anything but a popular Democrat and a common man. And yet, through the Declaration, he is the supreme spokesman for our idea of equality.

Now, what I want to suggest this evening is that Lincoln was not wrong in attributing to Jefferson and his revolutionary colleagues this idea of equality. There are very good historical reasons for making Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence the source of our doctrine of equality, perhaps even as it exists in its exaggerated and overdrawn forms in the late twentieth century.

Jefferson, of course, neither invented nor originated the idea of equality in 1776. As he quite rightly reminded his countrymen, he never intended to say anything original in the Declaration, but only, as he said, "to place before mankind the common sense of the subject, in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent."

Most of the revolutionary leaders talked about equality. John Adams wrote in 1766, a full decade before the Declaration, that all men were born equal. The idea of equality was part and parcel of the Revolution from the outset. But why? Why was equality so important to Jefferson and to this revolutionary generation?

Of course, equality under the law was long a part of their English heritage. Eighteenth century Englishmen prided themselves on the fact that Englishmen, unlike the French, possessed equal rights under the law. In 1760, Lord Ferres was hanged for murdering his steward. This seemed a confirmation of English equality under the law. And of course, there was always the long Christian tradition of the equality of all souls, in death if not in life.

But the American invocation of equality was new and different from these. It was not just equality under the law and not just the Christian equality of all souls under God. It was the equality in the here and now, in the society of this world. This new meaning of equality as an integral part of the eighteenth century enlightenment represented a major and radical shift in Western consciousness. From the very beginning of recorded history, people had simply taken the inequality of society for granted.

Now, it's only against this long, historical background of the givenness of inequality that we can appreciate the radicalism of Jefferson's claim that all men are created equal. Despite what the Declaration says, we know that it is not at all self-evident that all men are created equal. In fact, I suppose most of us today would say, if not too loudly, that the opposite is true; that all men are created unequal. Some are born smarter, faster, taller, more beautiful than others. Inequality was certainly what was self-evident to people throughout the entire history of the Western world prior to the eighteenth century.

Few people in the pre-modern world ever doubted the existence of profound differences between people, particularly those differences between aristocrats and commoners, patricians and plebeians, gentlemen and ordinary folk, officers and common soldiers. In fact, it's amazing to me in this day and age that this ancient military distinction hasn't been legally challenged. How do they get away with it, having a lower caste actually salute a superior caste?

Well, so distinctive and so separated was the aristocracy from ordinary folk in the pre-modern world that many thought that the two groups represented two orders of being. Gentlemen and commoners had different psyches, different emotional makeups, different natures. Ordinary people were like cattle. They were made only to be born and eat and sleep and die and be forgotten.

Like Mozart's Peppagaino, as one commentator said, they knew little of the motives which stimulate the higher ranks to action: pride, honor, and ambition. In general, it is only hunger which can spur to labor.

Ordinary people were thought to be different physically, and of course, because of varying diets and living conditions, no doubt in many cases they were different. People in the pre-modern world often assumed that a handsome child, though apparently a commoner, had to be the bastard offspring of an aristocrat.

The ancien regime generally assumed that the distinctions between the aristocracy and commoners were natural and that they were usually passed on in the blood. This old society did not know about genes and IQs, but many people living in that society certainly knew about heredity and inherited characteristics. They knew how to breed plants and animals, and they assumed that humans were bred in the same way. That's why kin, blood, and family counted for so much in this society. It was this belief in blood that made hereditary monarchy and hereditary aristocracy so meaningful to the ancien regime.

Now, it's against this old society and its centuries-old values that Jefferson and his enlightened colleagues launched their revolutionary assault. What made Jefferson's revolution radical was his attempt to substitute for the older social adhesives of kin, blood, and patronage new relationships based on merit and talent.

Jefferson, like nearly all of the revolutionary leaders, was the first generation in his family to go to college, and that fact lay behind his feelings against the ascribed statuses of the old society and his radical celebration of achievement.

Jefferson always felt the power of genealogy. As a young man of twenty-seven, he asked an English correspondent to search the herald's office in London for the arms of his father's family. "It is possible," he said, "there may be none."

He never forgot the insignificance of his father's ancestry. His father never went to college, but was a wealthy man, but not cultivated. Although he was not one to let his feelings show, we can sense even today, beneath the placid surface of his autobiography written in 1821 at the age of seventy-seven, some of his anger at all those Virginians who had prided themselves on their ancestry and had judged men by their family background. In the opening pages of his autobiography, Jefferson tells us that the lineage of his Welsh father was lost in obscurity. He was able to find in Wales only two references to his father's family.

His mother, on the other hand, was a Randolph, probably the most important and distinguished family in all Virginia. The Randolphs, he said, with about as much derision as Jefferson ever allowed himself, "traced their pedigree far back in England and Scotland, to which let everyone ascribe the faith and merit he chooses."

Now, growing up with his Randolph cousins as he did, Jefferson must have heard many snide references to the obscure and unrefined character of his father's family, and it angered him. He tended to romanticize his father who, as I said, was not refined, was not educated, was not cultivated; and he died when Jefferson was only fourteen. He talks about his father a good deal, but he scarcely mentions his mother in his writings. He certainly felt very differently about his father than he did his mother, towards whom several historians have recently argued he felt real hostility.

Perhaps more than anything else, this experience with the Randolph family enabled him, aristocrat that he was, to believe in equality and to identify with the anger felt by common, ordinary folk against the pretensions of an aristocracy.

At any rate, he went on in his autobiography to describe his efforts in 1776 in Virginia to bring down that distinct set of families who had used the legal devices of primogeniture and entail to form themselves into what he called "a patrician order, distinguished by the splendor and luxury of their establishments."

In 1814, he told an astonished John Adams that he had been utterly successful in this effort. In response to Adams' complaint about the continuing power of family distinction in New England, Jefferson had the nerve to say that in Virginia the power of ancestry was totally extinguished. Here, youth, beauty, mind, and manners are more valued than a pedigree. No FFDs (?) left, he said, in Virginia.

We often have thought Jefferson exaggerated the power of primogeniture and entail and this patrician order of Virginia. Not only was the docking of entails very common in Virginia, but the patrician order does not seem all that different from its challengers. But Jefferson clearly saw a difference and it rankled him. "The privileges of this aristocracy of wealth," he wrote, "needed to be destroyed in order to make an opening for the aristocracy of virtue and talent," of which, of course, he considered himself a prime example. "Such natural aristocrats," he said, "were the most precious gift of nature, for the instruction, the trusts, and the government of society."

To become a natural aristocrat, one had to acquire the attributes of a natural aristocrat: enlightenment, gentility, and taste. We will never understand the young Jefferson until we appreciate the intensity and the earnestness of his desire to become the most cosmopolitan, the most liberal, the most genteel, and the most enlightened Republican gentleman in all of America. It was almost as if he were out to show the Randolphs what real breeding was about.

Through arduous self-cultivation, Jefferson became the very model of an eighteenth century Republican gentleman, learned and genteel and cultivated, and yet at the same time sincerely devoted to the idea of equality.

Now, to Jefferson and the other revolutionary leaders, this equality possessed several layers of meaning. It meant, first of all, what we might call equality of opportunity. The revolutionary leaders believed that talent was randomly distributed in the population, not inherited, and that an enlightened society ought to search out and encourage that talent to develop free from the ancestor worship and patronage of the old order. Above all, they wanted a society in which who one's father was, whom one married, and whom one knew would no longer matter.

Of course, the Founding Fathers did not expect the poorest and the least educated men in the society to become its political leaders. They did not expect butchers and cobblers and uneducated farmers to run the government. But they did want a society in which the sons--the sons of butchers or cobblers or uneducated farmers, if they had the talent and acquired the attributes of enlightened leadership by going perhaps to Harvard or Princeton, could, in fact, attain the highest political offices in the land.

Hence, their desire in 1776 to eliminate monopolies and all legal privileges which individuals and families had traditionally used to close off the rise of talent and merit.

Republics, thus, would have an aristocracy of sorts, but it would be, in Jefferson's term, a natural aristocracy, not an artificial one. Now, this juxtaposition of terms that Jefferson uses is, I think, interesting and confusing to us. We today are apt to associate natural with blood and kin, but Jefferson did not. For him, and his neoclassical colleagues, nature was not biology but morality, what ought to be.

Although Jefferson believed in a natural aristocracy and was, by our lights, an unabashed elitist, at the same time, like the other revolutionary leaders, he also believed in a rough equality of condition for a Republican society, with every man an independent property holder. He took for granted that a society with the gross disparities of wealth and the great numbers of landless laborers and dependent people that he witnessed in monarchical France in the 1780s, that kind of society could not ever be Republican.

Equality for Jefferson was related to the personal independence of each citizen, which was essential for Republicanism. Indeed, his original draft for the Declaration of Independence stated that all men are created free and independent. Men should be equal in that no one of them should be dependent on the will of another, and property made this independence possible. Hence, his proposal in 1776 that every Virginian be given at least fifty acres of land.

Yet, in the end, equality meant more than even this to Jefferson. Indeed, if equality had meant only equality of opportunity or even a rough equality of property holding, it could never have become, as it has, the single most powerful and radical ideological force in all of American history. Equality became so potent for Americans because it came to mean that everyone was really the same as everyone else, not just at birth, not in talent or property or wealth, and not just in some transcendental religious sense of the equality of all souls.

Ordinary Americans came to believe that no one in a basic, down-to-earth, and day-in and day-out manner was really better than anyone else. They came to have a sense of self-worth and dignity that allowed them, regardless of their lack of wealth or education, to look others in the eye and treat them as equals and to expect to be treated as equals in return. That was equality as no other people had conceived of it.

Despite his commitment to social distinctions and a natural aristocracy, Jefferson contributed mightily to this broader conception of equality. His stress on the ability of common people to elect that natural aristocracy presumed a certain moral capacity in the populace as a whole. Indeed, on most things, Jefferson trusted ordinary people far more than he had trusted the aristocratic few, even the natural aristocratic few, who he believed were very apt to become wolves if they could.

Unlike the elite, common people were not deceptive or deceitful. They wore their hearts on their sleeves and were sincere. An American Republican world dominated by common folk would end the deceit and dissembling so characteristic of courtiers and monarchies. "Let those flatter who fear," he said. "It is not an American art."

But Jefferson went further. By assuming that ordinary people had personal realities equal to his own, Jefferson, like his revolutionary colleagues, gave birth to perhaps what is best described as the modern humanitarian sensibility, a powerful force that we of the twentieth century have inherited and further expanded.

He and the other revolutionary leaders shared the liberal premises of Lockean sensationalism; that is, that all men were born equal and that only the environment working on their senses made them different. These premises were essential to the growing sense of sympathy for other human creatures felt by enlightened people in the eighteenth century.

Once the liberally educated came to believe that they could control their environment and educate the vulgar and lowly to become something other than what the traditional society had presumed they were destined to be, then enlightened elites like Jefferson began to expand their sense of moral responsibility for the vice and ignorance they saw in others and to experience feelings of common humanity with them.

Thus, despite all their acceptance of differences among people, differences created through the environment operating on people's senses, many of the revolutionaries concluded, with Jefferson, that all men were basically alike, that they all partook of the same common nature. It was this commonality that linked people together in natural affection and made it possible for them to share each other's feelings. There was something in each human being, some sort of moral sense or sympathetic instinct, that made possible natural compassion and affection. Even the lowliest of persons, it was assumed, had this sense of sympathy or moral feeling for another.

Young divinity student and school master of Sheffield, Massachusets, Thomas Robbins, recounted in his diary in 1796 the incident of a black boy of about four who asked Robbins about a cut on his thumb. The boy said to him, "If I had some plaster, I would give you some to put on it." Robbins was overwhelmed by the boy's sympathy. He appears to act from the pure dictates of nature, without the least cultivation.

If in anyone, I think we can see nature in him. The conclusion for Robbins was obvious: "Is there not, then, in human nature a principle of benevolence?" he asked.

Although most enlightened revolutionaries like Jefferson believed in Lockean sensationalism, they were not such out-and-out sensationalists that they counted on men and women being able, by reason alone, to control the environment's chaotic bombardment of their senses. Something else was needed to structure their experience.

As Jefferson said, "The Creator would, indeed, have been a bungling artist had he intended man for a social animal without planting in him social dispositions."

Jefferson, like others in these years, modified his stark Lockean environmentalism by positing this social disposition, kind of moral instinct in each human being. Such a moral gyroscope identified with Scottish moral or commonsense thinking and resembling, I think, Kant's categories, was needed to counteract the worst and most frightening implications of Lockean sensationalism and to keep individuals level and sociable in a confused and chaotic world.

This gyroscope could not be reason, which was too unequally distributed in people, but had to be a kind of common moral sense, a moral intuition existing in every person's heart or conscience, however humble, however lacking in education that person may have been. "State a moral case to a plowman and a professor," said Jefferson. "The plowman will decide it as well and often better than the professor, because he has not been led astray by artificial rules."

This belief in the equal moral worth and equal moral authority of every individual was--and I think is--the real source of America's democratic equality, an equality that was far more potent than merely the Lockean idea that everyone started at birth with the same blank sheet.

Jefferson's assumption that people were naturally sociable and possessed an innate moral sense had important implications. It lay behind his belief in minimal government. He thought if the government would just get out of the way, people's inherent sociability and moral instinct would create a natural ordering of the society, an ordering that would be free of the confusion and contentions of the past.

Many revolutionaries, like Jefferson, believed that government, although perhaps necessary to restrict what wickedness that did exist, was, nevertheless, the source of most of the social evils in the world, including poverty and all invidious privileges and distinctions. With governmental power reduced to a minimum and vigilantly watched, revolutionaries like Jefferson hoped that the new Republican equality would lead to social harmony. They believed that the contentiousness of colonial politics under the British monarchy, for example, had come from the fact that undeserving people had been in leadership.

Once the truly virtuous and talented were elected to office, once Jefferson's natural aristocracy replaced the artificial aristocracy of the past, then the squabbling, jealousy, and disorder that had marked colonial politics would cease.

Now, they could not have been more wrong in this respect in their revolutionary idealism. It was, in fact, a pervasive sense of equality that lay behind much, if not all, of the competitiveness, jealousy, and contention that characterized American society. The sanctions for any sort of superiority were weak to begin with, and the doctrine of equality only weakened them further. No one was quite satisfied with his position in the hierarchy and continually questioned why Mr. Jones was on top and he wasn't.

Even before the Revolution, a New England clergyman had a Tocquevillian insight sixty years before Tocqueville. "In a country like this where property is so equally divided," said Ebenezer Baldwin in 1774, "everyone will be disposed to rival his neighbor in goodness of dress, sumptuousness of furniture, and so on." All our little earnings, therefore, go to Great Britain to purchase the superfluities of life; hence, the common people here make a show much above what they do in England. Conspicuous consumption, keeping up with the Joneses, was built into the very heart of American culture, and it was sustained by the pervasive feelings of equality among the people and by the idea of equality as set forth by Jefferson and the other revolutionary leaders.

If people were born equal, all superiorities were manmade, culturally constructed, I suppose we would say. Then all claims of superiority were vulnerable to challenge. It was these sorts of circumstances that produced the turbulent egalitarian world of post-revolutionary America.

Now, Jefferson's idea of equality was terribly permissive, and he and the other revolutionary leaders who invoked it had little inkling of the lengths to which it could or would be carried. It immediately rendered suspect all kinds of distinctions, whether naturally derived or not. By increasing the social scrambling and conspicuous consumption that had been obvious even before the Revolution, Republican equality threatened even to destroy the very conception of a social hierarchy of ranks and degrees, even when naturally achieved.

In a free and independent republic, it was said in the 1780s, the idea of equality breathes through the whole, and every individual feels ambitious to be in a situation not inferior to his neighbor. Among Americans, it was said, the idea of inferiority, as of pursuing a mean employment or occupation, mortifies the feelings and sours the minds of those who feel themselves inferior. Consequently, everyone strives to be equal with those above him, in dress if in nothing else.

A society that had no place for these sorts of inferiorities, of occupation or of dress, was an unusual society, indeed. This was drawing out Republican equality faster and further than anyone had expected.

Now, we get some sense of what equality came to mean to some of these Americans from an extraordinary incident that occurred in South Carolina in 1784. John Rutledge, of the famous Rutledge family, the former Governor of the State--and he was a member at this point of the legislature, and, of course, a member of a distinguished family--sent his servant to watch fireworks from a tavern owned by a name named William Thompson, who was one of the new breed of Charleston artisan businessmen, eager to make a mark in the new republic in America. When Thompson refused to allow Rutledge's servant to enter his tavern, Rutledge became incensed. Who is this tavern keeper to insult a Rutledge? Since Rutledge was at the moment a member of the state legislature, he claimed that Thompson's insult to him was actually an insult to the Assembly, and he urged that the legislature banish Thompson from the state.

Now, Thompson took to the press to defend himself in a classic expression of American resentment of social superiority, a resentment voiced, as Thompson said, not on behalf of himself but on behalf of all ordinary people everywhere; or as Thompson put it, "on those more especially who go at this day under the opprobrious appellation of the lower orders of men."

Thompson actually subverted Jefferson's notion of a natural aristocracy in his defense. He argued that Rutledge, precisely because of his wealth, education, and gentility, was peculiarly unqualified to rule in republican America. "Such aristocratic qualities," said Thompson, "were ideally designed for private life, but not for public service in a republic. All that was needed for a republican leadership," said Thompson, "was being, good, able, useful, and friends to social equality. For in a republic, consequence is from the public opinion and not from private fancy."

Sarcastically, Thompson recounted how he, a wretch of no higher rank in the commonwealth than that of common citizen, had been debased by those self-exalted characters who affect to compose the grand hierarchy of the state, for having dared to dispute with John Rutledge or any of that nabob tribe. "No doubt," said Thompson, "Rutledge had conceived me his inferior." But Thompson, like many others in these post-revolutionary years--artisan, shopkeepers, traders, businessmen--could no longer, as he put it, "comprehend the inferiority."

All claims now of social distinction, not just claims of ancestry or family, were ridiculed and scorned as aristocratic and un-American. Aristocracy, natural as well as artificial, quickly became a pejorative term, at least in the North, as Princeton graduates like Hugh Henry Brackenridge and wealthy merchants like Robert Morris soon discovered.

In the 1780s, both Brackenridge and Morris became victims of the egalitarian rhetoric of William Finley, one of the most colorful of the new popular politicians of the post-revolutionary era and one of the great demagogues of American history. Finley was a Scotch-Irish immigrant who came to the Colonies in 1763 at the age of twenty-two. He began as a weaver, tried his hand at school teaching and farming before getting caught up in the revolutionary movement, moved through the ranks to a militia captaincy, became a member of the Pennsylvania Assembly from the wilds of the Pittsburgh area.

Finley, I think, was as much a product of the Revolution as Jefferson or Adams were. He had no lineage to speak of. He went to no college, and he possessed no great wealth. He was completely self-taught and self-made, but not in the manner of Benjamin Franklin, who acquired the cosmopolitan attributes of a liberally educated gentleman. Finley's origin showed, and conspicuously so, in his middling aspirations, middling achievements, and middling resentments, he represented far more accurately what America was becoming than did the college-educated gentry like Jefferson or Adams.

In just a few short years, in the 1780s, Finley sent Brackenridge scurrying out of politics for the safety of a literary career, where he turned his disillusionment with American democracy into his comic masterpiece, "Modern Chivalry." At the same time, Finley turned on Robert Morris, who was one of the most prominent and overbearing of the well-to-do Philadelphia elite who had aristocratic aspirations.

During a debate in the Pennsylvania Assembly in 1786, Finley repeatedly baited Morris for his greed and his love of wealth. In reply, Morris tried to stress that social distinctions were not based on wealth alone. "Surely," Morris said, "persons possessed of knowledge, judgment, information, integrity, and having extensive connections are not to be classed with persons void of reputation and character." But Finley would hear none of this aristocratic pretension.

Finally, in exasperation, Morris exploded. "If wealth be so obnoxious," he said to Finley--this is in the Assembly--"I ask this gentleman why is he so eager in the pursuit of it?" If Morris expected a denial from Finley, he did not get it. For Finley's understanding of Morris' motives was really based on an understanding of his own. Did he love wealth and pursue it as Morris did? "Doubtless I do," said Finley. "I love and pursue it not as an end, but as a means of enjoying happiness and independence." Though he was quick to add that the amount of his wealth was not at all as great as Morris' was.

Not that this made Morris in any way superior to Finley. Indeed, the central point stressed by Finley and the other western assemblymen in the Pennsylvania Legislature was that Morris and his patrician Philadelphia crowd were no different from them, were no more respectable than they were. Such would-be aristocrats simply had more money than their neighbors. "In America," said Finley, "no man has a greater claim of special privilege for his 100,000 pounds than I have for my five pounds."

That was what American equality meant, and I think still means.

By the early nineteenth century, there were greater disparities of wealth in the society than had existed in the colonial period. Yet the society felt more equal and lauded itself for its egalitarianism--a paradox that has puzzled more than one historian.

What made these disparities of wealth acceptable to so many was the fact that success in money making did not depend on any aristocratic attributes whatsoever, neither natural nor artificial. All that was necessary in America to get ahead, it seemed, was enterprise and hard work, not political privilege, not social connections, not polite manners, not genteel knowledge, not even education, at least not a gentleman's liberal arts education. Jefferson's natural aristocrat, to his horror, turned out to be simply someone who could make money.

Now, out of these circumstances emerged the ideal of the self-made man, a symbol that we Americans in time became so familiar with that we have forgotten what a novel, indeed racial notion it originally was.

Of course, there had always been social mobility in Western society, sometimes and in some places more than others. But it generally had been a mobility of a peculiar sort in which the upward-thrusting individual sought to acquire the attributes of the higher social status that he aspired to, and at the same time, of course, sought to disguise the lowly sources from whence he came.

Such mobility had not been something to be proud of, as indicated by the pejorative terms--"upstarts," "nouveaux riches," "parvenus"--used to disparage its participants. Now, however, post-revolutionary America, independent, mobile men, began actually boasting of their humble origins and their ability to have made it on their own, without ancestry, without influence and patronage, even without education.

When our tavern keeper friend, William Thompson of South Carolina, was celebrated in the press as being a self-established man who had no relations or friends but what his money made for him, a subtle but radical revolution in thinking was taking place. For many Americans, it soon came to seem that the ability to make money was the sole and, in the new republican society, the only proper means for distinguishing one man from another.

Catherine Sedgwick, daughter of a Tory Federalist family, spoke for all of the old aristocracy when she observed that the emerging nineteenth century entrepreneurial hierarchy, "Wealth, you know, is the grand leveling principle." It's a great insight. It captures, I think, what America has been about.

Which is why we continue to put up with great disparities of individual wealth, as long as we think that wealth is fairly earned. This is equality as no other nation has ever quite had it, and Jefferson had a significant hand in its creation.

Gordon S. Wood is a professor of history at Brown University.

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Monday, October 27, 2014 | 10:00 a.m. – 11:30 a.m.
State income taxes and the Supreme Court: Maryland Comptroller v. Wynne

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Tuesday, October 28, 2014 | 9:30 a.m. – 12:15 p.m.
For richer, for poorer: How family structures economic success in America

Join Lerman, Wilcox, and a group of distinguished scholars and commentators for the release of Lerman and Wilcox’s report, which examines the relationships among and policy implications of marriage, family structure, and economic success in America.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014 | 5:30 p.m. – 7:00 p.m.
The 7 deadly virtues: 18 conservative writers on why the virtuous life is funny as hell

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Thursday, October 30, 2014 | 2:00 p.m. – 3:00 p.m.
A nuclear deal with Iran? Weighing the possibilities

Join us, as experts discuss their predictions for whether the United States will strike a nuclear deal with Iran ahead of the November 24 deadline, and the repercussions of the possible outcomes.

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The forgotten depression — 1921: The crash that cured itself

Please join Author James Grant and AEI senior economists for a discussion about Grant's book, "The Forgotten Depression: 1921: The Crash That Cured Itself" (Simon & Schuster, 2014).

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