Equality and The American Democrat
James Fenimore Cooper, America’s first national novelist, lived during our first great groundswell of political populism during the Jacksonian era. Egalitarian language and imagery fanned enthusiasm for democracy. Cooper saw serious dangers from this impulse toward majority rule as a panacea for every complaint, and that without strict limits on what majorities were allowed to decide, it was inconsistent with the equality of unalienable rights our founders proclaimed.
Cooper devoted much of The American Democrat (1838) to the appropriate understanding of equality under our Constitution. It is ignored today, in the swelling cacophony of pleas for special treatment in the name of equality. However, his understanding, based on the insight that “The denial of a favor is not an invasion of a right,” merits renewed attention.
Among Cooper's many insights are these:
- All men are not “created equal”...unless we limit the signification to one of political rights.
- As regards all human institutions, men are born equal.
- With an equality of civil rights, all men are equal before the law...An equality of civil rights may be briefly defined to be an absence of privileges.
- The rights of property being an indispensable condition of civilization, and its quiet possession everywhere guaranteed, equality of condition is rendered impossible.
- Equality is nowhere laid down as a governing principle of the institutions of the United States.
- All that a good government aims at...is to add no unnecessary and artificial aid to the force of its own unavoidable consequences, and to abstain from fortifying and sustaining social inequality as a means of increasing political inequalities.
- All men have essentially the same rights, an equality which, so far from establishing that “one man is as good as another” in a social sense, is the very means of producing the inequality of condition that actually exists. By possessing the same rights to exercise their respective faculties, the active and frugal become more wealthy than the idle and dissolute; the wise and gifted more trusted than the silly and ignorant...
- In order not to interfere with the inequality of nature, her laws must be left to their own operations...after a proper attention has been paid to the peace of the society, by protecting the weak against the strong.
- The result of these undeniable facts is the inequalities of social station… though it is an inequality that exists without any more arbitrary distinctions than are indispensably connected with the maintenance of civilization.
- This social inequality of America is an unavoidable result of the institutions, though nowhere proclaimed in them...it is as much a consequence of civilized society as breathing is a vital function of animal life.
- Social intercourse must regulate itself, independently of institutions, with the exception that the latter, while they withhold no natural, bestow no factious advantages beyond those which are inseparable from the rights of property, and general civilization.
- The man of property has no more personal legal immunities than the man who has none, neither has he fewer. He is privileged to use his own means… in the pursuit of his own happiness, and they who would interfere with him, so far from appreciating liberty, are ignorant of its vital principles.
- The…just-minded man...In asserting his own rights, he respects the rights of others...in pursuing his own course, in his own manner, he knows his neighbor has an equal right to do the same.
- No expedients can equalize the temporal lots of men…All that the best institutions can achieve is to remove useless obstacles and to permit merit to be the artisan of its own fortune.
James Fenimore Cooper recognized that “in a democracy the delusion that would elsewhere be poured into the ears of the prince is poured into those of the people.” A major such delusion is that our equality under the Constitution means that majorities can decide whatever they wish, and force their decisions on the rest, because it eats away the equality of rights that is the basis for any civil society that values liberty. Unfortunately, the exploitation of that delusion is a centerpiece of modern politics.
Gary M. Galles is a professor of economics at Pepperdine University. He is the author of The Apostle of Peace: The Radical Mind of Leonard Read.