Keeping the Faith
For the first few thousand years of civilization the idea of human equality seemed altogether remote from reality. No society thought to commit to such an unnatural proposition. Instead, distinctions of all kinds were widely accepted, recognized as appropriate and necessary. There was royalty and aristocracy, undeniable marks of superiority everywhere. Military orders and priesthoods kept commoners in line. Men, almost everywhere, assumed the subordination of women, while masters regarded slaves, servants and apprentices as properly beneath them.
Not much changed until the 18th Century, but then, especially in Britain’s American colonies, the idea took root. There no titled aristocracy had emerged, no military establishment embedded in society, no authorized priesthood apart from the populace. Plus an impressive number of free men owned land, which meant that they could vote. Paradoxically slavery also fostered egalitarian trends, among whites that is, where clear superiority over blacks produced a rough sense of equality within their ranks.
The immortal words of Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence – “all men are created equal” and possess rights that are “inalienable,” dramatically underscored what had happened in the colonies and offered an inspiring guidepost for the future American society (soon supplemented by a resounding Bill of Rights). Now those intent on challenging hierarchies of long standing had their rallying cry, a clarion call to reorder the way society had long been organized. In the Northern states the legal framework of slavery was in time overturned while vocal groups there demanded that the South do likewise. Here and there women began to challenge assumptions about their subordinate status and constricted roles. Educational reformers recognized that to move society toward greater equality required an enlightened citizenry and thus advocated for a public educational system. Widespread literacy prevailed and a vibrant press emerged. Andrew Jackson toppled the all-powerful Bank of the United States while reformers attacked other privileged monopoly corporations and redesigned the legal system to enable simple and accessible incorporation procedures. “Utopian” communities abounded, many featuring egalitarian experiments involving work assignments, marriage relations and gender roles. So Jefferson’s ringing pronouncement back in 1776 not only sparked and justified a revolutionary uprising, but also committed the United States to the ultimate goal of promoting greater equality across society.
But human equality was then mostly a concept, a heartfelt assertion, a legal construct. Many at ground level saw things differently. Individuals clearly did not look alike and they possessed greater or lesser capacities. Some strong, others weak; some competent, others deficient; some successful, others abject failures. So regarding them as equal was for many little more than wishful thinking. And so while the U.S. took comfort and pride in the egalitarian rhetoric, many viewed matters quite differently. Such was the case across the 19th Century and into the 20th. Native Americans were largely cast aside. Blacks continued to be regarded as racially inferior; immigrants, especially the Irish, Chinese, Japanese and Eastern Europeans, considered unacceptable and unassimilable, while women, viewed as intellectually limited, were confined to their own lesser world. The poor and large portions of the working classes were regarded as morally debased, a perpetual menace to established society, some so deficient intellectually that sterilization measures (Eugenics movement) were introduced and intended to keep their numbers in check. With all this in mind, it’s hard to imagine how a belief in equality managed to survive this period.
But it did. Americans have never given up on this incandescent idea (or at least in their faith in equal opportunity). Recent decades have seen group after group come out of the shadows, insist that attitudes and barriers that had left them behind be swept aside. Women, African Americans, immigrants, those with disabilities and those of various gender identifications, all staked their claims to equal footing, demanding a levelling of the playing field. They have been heard; and their demands at least partially met. But, as in the past, such claims advanced in the name of equality were not everywhere welcome and often resisted. Furthermore, a new stridency entered the debate as a severely fractured political system split people into mutually exclusive and hostile camps. In this contentious atmosphere certain groups, notably immigrants, Muslims, the poor, rural populations and inner city dwellers, were singled out as unworthy, undeserving, even a threat to the well-being and security of American society.
Both the idea and the necessary components of equality first took root in the U.S. and became the centerpiece of our national ideology. But as we’ve seen, the idea did not always hold sway and many were denied their rightful place or a reasonable opportunity to enter mainstream society. Today that struggle is once again underway, achieving some semblance of equality as elusive as ever.