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 by English Whigs was nothing more than a tool by which a party made up of powerful aristocrats and wealthy merchants hoped to appropriate some of the crown’s authority and to use it in their own interests.  Kings did not, they argued, receive their power directly from God nor inherit it from Adam.  The power of government was conventional, derived from early men who agreed to sacrifice some of their independence for the sake of security and tranquility.  If a ruler or ruling class abused the authority with which it had been entrusted, the heirs to the first parties of that contract could reassume their natural authority.  And who were those heirs?  Adult male Englishmen, for the most part, though from time to time other European males might be accepted into the body politic.  Good English Whigs were as untainted by egalitarian fantasies as the staunchest Tories, though by the late 18th century some radicals had begun to speak of the rights of man.  They were fools of course, and none but fools were persuaded by William Godwin or Tom Paine.

Opponents of the American Revolution gleefully seized on what they took to be the hypocrisy of slaveowners proclaiming the rights of man.  Samuel Johnson, ever a sound Tory, wondered, “How is it that the loudest yelps for liberty come from the drivers of slaves?”  I think there is no one alive in America who admires Dr. Johnson more than I do, but this complaint is, to use his own language, mere cant.  Why not put the same question to Miltiades and Leonidas?  There is no irony in the fact that it is precisely slaveowners who prize liberty the most.

The conventional reading of the Declaration was socially conservative, for the most part.  Some abolitionists, in candid moments, knew they had no constitutional ground on which to stand.  That is why William Lloyd Garrison referred to the Constitution as a “covenant with death” and a “pact with the Devil.”  On the other side, Chief Justice Roger Taney was a solid Jeffersonian, whose refusal (in Dred Scott) to acknowledge the civil rights of African-Americans was rooted neither in racism nor in Toryism.  There are several false moves in some of the opinions that make up the Dred Scott decision, but the central point is indisputable: The only parties to the American contract—the Constitution—were free white male citizens, and, for slaves or former slaves to avail themselves of constitutional protections, it would require a constitutional amendment.

So Lincoln’s appeal to natural equality as the underlying justification for the war is, at best, a mistake and, at worst, a lie.  His argument, however, is significant in revealing the revolution that was taking place, transforming the federal republic established by Washington, Adams, and Jefferson into a Jacobin state based on the social and political equality advocated by Jean-Jacques Rousseau.  A theory of hypothetical equality in a state of nature was now a justification for eliminating the natural and artificial particularities on which the social order rests.

The point at issue has nothing to do with the morality or immorality of slavery.  Slavery could have been outlawed without any reference to natural equality or natural rights.  What happened, in the event, was not the preservation of the Union but a radical reinvention of the federation of United States as a centralized unitary state based on a principle of equality that dissolves all the intricacies and complexities of human society into naked individuals, equal to each other in all important respects and powerless to resist the great god of the national government.

Progressive historians and political intellectuals treat this process either as an inevitable evolution or as a hard-fought struggle to bring enlightenment to American bigots.  They find it convenient to overlook both the ideological roots of this revolution (not an evolution at all) and the extent to which it has concentrated wealth and power in an ever-shrinking ruling class.  The latter point can be left to future discussions, but some small attention to this revolutionary ideology will help us to understand where we are today and how we got here.

Eighteenth-century France produced many glib intellectual lightweights—Voltaire, Diderot, Holbach—whose adolescent railings against tradition and authority wowed the provincial lawyers who flooded into Paris in 1789.  Each hawked his own brand of impiety and libertinism, but none was quite so convincing as Rousseau.  Rousseau’s effectiveness derives in part from the brilliance of his prose—certainly not the clarity of his thought or the vastness of his erudition—but even more from his appeal to the heart.  The late 18th century was already turning its back on wit and reason and indulging in the sentimentalism that would flourish in the Romantic age.  On the surface, Rousseau sometimes seems like just another village atheist with all the answers, but Rousseau could play with virtuosity upon the heartstrings of his readers.

Rousseau’s Discourses were his breakthrough—the first an argument against civilization, and the second a proclamation of human equality.  To understand the deranged mental condition of Robespierre and his disciples, you only have to sift through the Second Discourse.  While pretending to a deep knowledge of ancient history he did not possess, Rousseau takes to task the philosophers who have ignored what life was like in a state of nature, and he judiciously begins his argument with the statement “Let us therefore begin by setting aside all the facts, for they do not affect the question.”  The facts are what is known or thought to be known of human history, and the question is man’s original condition, about which no one—certainly not Rousseau—knew anything.

After such a promising beginning, Rousseau can pretty much say anything he likes—for example, that primitive men do not fear beasts, a “fact” that would be news to anthropologists in Africa who have frequently remarked on the villagers’ terror of the jungle.  The family is not the foundation of the state, but vice versa, and, while paternal authority is not natural, pity is.  He bases this conclusion on a sample size of the middle-class French people he knows, but even that sample should have sobered him up.  It is too bad he could not have lived long enough to be torn apart on the streets of Paris, where the mob would have drunk the blood of the bourgeois lackey.

Rousseau also anticipates Proudhon’s famous paradox that “property is theft”: “The first man who, having enclosed a piece of ground, to whom it occurred to say this is mine and found people sufficiently simple to believe him, was the true founder of civil society.”  Thus, distinctions in wealth and rank are completely artificial and should be done away with.  It does not occur to Rousseau—as it did even to Marx—that a man who improves a piece of ground and makes it fruitful might just possibly be entitled to reap the rewards of his labor.  And it did not occur to either Marx or Rousseau, blinded as they were by their silly theories about social evolution, that property rights in primitive societies are generally familial and collective.  Although leftist anthropologists like to imagine a human condition in which property is not recognized, it is hard to find evidence to support their conviction.  Everywhere, people have personal possessions (weapons, clothing, ornaments), and even the most primitive peoples acknowledge group claims to watering holes and fishing or hunting grounds.  Property is as natural as marriage and food-gathering, all of which are rooted in natural necessities from which arise distinct responsibilities.

So let us conclude by returning to the facts.  Rousseau (and Marx) have built their theories on counterfactual premises, whose acceptance has caused great mischief.  While the old Whig theory of natural equality was a comparatively benign fiction that aimed primarily at reducing the power of kings, the natural equality espoused by Rousseau, Marx, and Lincoln reduces or eliminates all distinctions between rich and poor, male and female, parents and children, Christians and Muslims.  Human societies are made up of interchangeable parts, but the societies themselves are also interchangeable, and the Anglo-American political experience that goes under the false name of democracy becomes a global export that is expected to transform the character of the ancient peoples of Egypt and Iraq.

If you think back to your high-school algebra, you will recall how simple it was to come up with one or two answers to what appeared at first to be complicated equations—an equation being a statement of equality.  But when we got to inequalities of the type x² + 6 ≥ 23, the range of answers was immense.  In human society, a statement of equality eliminates all the precious differences and complications that make life worth living, but within the broad range of experience that can be represented as inequalities (boy≠man≠woman≠girl≠priest) we find all this juice and all this joy that have sustained mankind from the beginning.