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The central social agony of American political and social life since the founding of the Republic has been caused by the problem of equality. Our domestic political history has been dominated by the demand for equality and the resistance to that demand. A destructive civil war, urban riots, the burning of cities, major legislation and judicial struggles, and the local social and political structures of a large section of the United States have all, at least at the level of public consciousness, been responses to the manifest inequality of status, wealth, and power in a society whose chief claim to legitimacy has been its devotion to equality.
Western history had, of course, always been marked by civil wars, peasant uprisings, rick burnings, machine breakings, and urban riots, but these were in the name of bread, land, and work. The demand for social and political equality was a creation of the ideologues of modern society. Both in Europe and North America, the bourgeois revolutions of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, which overthrew the ancien régime of restricted privilege, were based on the slogans of liberté, égalité, fraternité. “All men are created equal, and they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.”
These are the slogans of our childhood, the unquestioned assertion of the basis of our political and civil life. Yet the facts of that life are in direct contradiction with the ideology. It is obvious to everyone, no matter how optimistic their politics, that there are immense inequalities of social status, power, and wealth among individuals, among races, between the sexes. While Jefferson could not have meant what he said about all men being created equal, since a mere ten years later the framers of the Constitution arranged that slaves would be counted as only three-fifths a person, he meant literally all men since the political rights of women were not established for another 130 years.
The social tension created by the contradiction between the ideals of equality and the manifest existing inequalities has been, in part, relieved by institutional and judicial arrangements. Constitutional amendments, Supreme Court decisions, civil rights legislation have all been devoted to creating a better fit between the ideal and the real. Yet major inequalities remain, and it does not seem that further judicial and institutional changes of a radical kind will be accomplished. The movement for women’s rights, in particular, is stalled and even reversed, with the Equal Rights Amendment no longer a political issue and abortion rights in at least partial retreat. What is the solution? The Enlightenment, having created the problem in the first place by the claim for individual rights, also provided a tool for legitimizing inequality through its implied claims that the individual is supremely responsible for causing the unequal situation he or she occupies.
Accompanying the static and unchanging social position in which pre-revolutionary Europeans found themselves was the view that divine causation provided legitimacy to hierarchal society. The doctrine of Grace was the guarantor of…
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