Beyond the Revolution

The Algebra of Equality

When Abraham Lincoln tried to explain the issue between North and South, he said it was a test of the conception on which America had been founded, “a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”

Lincoln, inadvertently revealing the principle on which a revolution was being organized, probably imagined he was only restating the Lockean platitudes that Mr. Jefferson had inserted into the Declaration.  The words were, after all, the same, though the meaning had changed.  It is true that Jefferson’s unfortunate political myth was not without risk.  As Calhoun so acutely pointed out, only Adam and Eve were created; the rest of us are all born and never into a state of equality.  But Jefferson’s rhetorical nod to John Locke was not interpreted at the time as a call for social or political equality.  If it had been so interpreted, the Declaration would have been repudiated by the conservatives and moderates who controlled the states and the Continental Congress.  John Adams and George Washington would have vigorously dissented; Henry Laurens and the Pinckneys would have been furious.  The calm acceptance of the Declaration’s restatement of the Social Contract is all the proof we need that such conventional language posed no threat to an established social order that rested on slavery and patriarchy.

The Social Contract theory developed...

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