Ideologues have been manipulating the idea of equality for two centuries now. Still, it is equality that has provided the dynamism, the moving force that has energized modern history. The great liberal and leftist revolutions of the past two centuries have all been made in the name of equality…

After we began the walk back to campus, the mood settled and Stephen Tonsor broached a topic related to the one we had probed over lunch. “You’d be interested in a book I’m working on, Mr. Whitney. It’s about equality. Remarkably, there has been no systematic historical exploration of the idea of equality in recent times. This, despite the ridiculous overproduction of monographs! Yet historians have failed to provide an account of the development of the idea of equality. I argue that this notion—equality—has provided the key signature of the modern world. No idea has played a larger role in the history of the past two or three centuries than that of equality.”[1]

“When it comes to equality,” I said, “it seems everyone nowadays embraces some form of trickle-down Marx.” 

“Very true,” Tonsor said with a gust of laughter. “Now, insofar as the historian can discern, inequality characterized all civilizations in the past. In fact, if one were to argue that the experience of history constitutes a prescriptive norm, then one must confront the fact that the great bulk of human experience constitutes an argument against equality. Until the eighteenth century, nearly all men regarded inequalities of wealth, status, and power as in the nature of things, an unalterable given. That changed sometime in the eighteenth century. Witnessing the American and French revolutions, men in substantial numbers questioned inequality from the standpoint of political and social justice.[2]

“Roughly speaking, equality is to the modern age what freedom was to the early modern age. As you know, freedom—freedom of thought, speech, religion, politics, economics, national independence—stamped nearly all important historical struggles from the Reformation to the French Revolution and beyond. We are still under freedom’s spell. But at some point after the French Revolution, equality eclipsed even freedom as a value and now plays a larger role than ever in our debates, polities, and aspirations.”[3]

“Your subject reminds me of Robert Frost’s poem, ‘The Black Cottage.’ There the poet ponders Jefferson’s famous lines in the Declaration of Independence, that all men are created free and equal. It is ‘a hard mystery,’ Frost says. The idea is so radical that people don’t know what to do with it:

But never mind, the Welshman got it planted
Where it will trouble us a thousand years.
Each age will have to reconsider it.[4]

“Yes,” my professor said. “It is a hard mystery.

“As you know, I advise my students to be alert to historical development. By historical development, I mean neither the ideological distortions that you see in the Hegelian dialectic, nor the Whig notion that the ‘past is prologue,’ nor the nationalists’ chest-thumping, nor the Marxian scheme that imposes a theory of scientific inevitability on the historical record. That’s not history. That’s a one-size-fits-all ideology. I want students to explore historical development empirically. I want them to order their thinking in a disciplined manner, which means, first, examining the symbolic record men have left behind and, second, basing their interpretation on the canons of reason, logic, and evidence.”

Tonsor’s advice to students was about as succinct a statement as I’d heard of the normative method that had been developed by historians over the last two centuries. Actually, that method was the subject of an important book I had been encouraged to read, That Noble Dream, by Peter Novick.[5]

I also appreciated that Tonsor did not confine exploration of the past to “the written record” as so many historians did, but to “the symbolic record” since he himself liberally used art, iconography, music, and architecture in his intellectual history and cultural criticism.

“In the case of equality, the development has been exceedingly complex. The idea is more convoluted, has meant more different things, has undergone more transformations, than just about any other idea in the modern age.[6] Would you agree?”

“I would!” I said, excited that Tonsor was sharing his book proposal with me. “Recently at Mass, the reading was from Matthew,[7] the parable about all the laborers getting the same wage, even the ones who show up near the end of the day. It caused quite a ruckus. People didn’t get it then, and we don’t get it now.”

I continued: “There are so many different ways to look at the idea of equality because there are so many different arenas in which the struggle for equality has taken place. It’s been humankind’s running struggle, I suppose, since Hammurabi and Moses. The priests—they have to define what religious equality looks like. Are all human persons equal by virtue of having souls and being created in the image and likeness of God? The judges—they have to work out what the equality of all persons under the law looks like. The politicians—they have to determine political equality through norms like one man one vote. The entrepreneurs—they must seek economic equality by eliminating barriers to entering the marketplace and obstacles to growing their businesses. The social theorists—they come up with redistributive policies like guaranteed income and school vouchers to give every disadvantaged family a ladder up.”

“You are referring to Milton Friedman,” observed Tonsor. “One of our most creative thinkers on the right when it comes to the problem of equality and the related idea of equity. And then there are the abstract philosophers who continue to spin out their ethereal theories. They can be interesting and not altogether unproductive. But it’s important to note that when a philosopher like John Rawls writes about equality, he is only ratifying changes that have already occurred in a Sitz im Leben, in a real historical and cultural context.”[8]


I hardly heard what Tonsor last said because a policy idea suddenly occurred to me, out of the blue: “What if we provided a national income for every American adult below a certain line of adjusted gross income, and tied that income to the nation’s economic performance. In any given year, if the economy did well, and more revenues came in to the Treasury, then the income floor would be higher. Giving everyone the dignity of a minimum income would satisfy the left. And giving everyone a stake in robust economic growth would satisfy the right. Maybe such a vision of the common good could unite left and right,” I offered, steeling myself against his usual charge, that I was being Pollyannaish.

“It will never happen,” he said grumpily. “Still, you should write your idea up for National Review. They might publish it.”


After a few moments, my professor continued: “What I find especially fascinating is the distance between all the paeans to equality—by the political scientists, philosophers, Marxist theorists, and historians—and the absence of equality in the world as we find it. As you know, works dealing with the organization of human society tend to divide into how society is, or how it ought to be: into descriptive or prescriptive treatments. So: Machiavelli in The Prince wrote descriptively; Plato in the Republic wrote prescriptively. Christopher Jencks in Inequality wrote descriptively; Huxley in Island wrote prescriptively. But no author can claim to have found true equality in our civilization. Is this not strange? In a day when demands for equality are at an all-time high, when the rhetoric of equality is at a fever pitch, when the promise of equality is a staple of political life, the fact is that while certain kinds of equality have increased over the past two centuries, there is, overall, little enough by way of genuine equality.[9]

“Muhammad Ali seeks more political and economic equality. But he is who he is and earns what he earns because of a peculiar combination of genetics, metabolism, training, and opportunity that can only be described as extraordinary. No amount of political or economic equality can suppress that fact.[10]

“And so it is that our experience of individuals and of society is not the experience of equality but rather the experience of the most intense and pervasive inequality. And yet the founding fathers in the Declaration of Independence asserted that ‘all men are created equal.’ Surely there is a contradiction in American political theory in particular and in Western political theory as a whole between prescriptive and descriptive social and political analysis. So we must ask, what exactly does the clause mean? Did it mean the same thing to Thomas Jefferson as it did to the son of a hardscrabble farmer in south-central Illinois named Abraham Lincoln?[11]

“The idea of equality is central to understanding the American experience. It is the fundamental idea that lies behind the American Revolution and the extraordinary society we in America have created. More important still, the idea of equality has transformed not only the political life and society of the United States but also the life and society of the world.[12]

“Yes, the notion of equality has been the single most potent revolutionary force the world has ever seen. Over and over again in the course of the past 200 years, mankind has defied tradition and status, blood and accumulated usage, in the hope of regenerating and recreating society. More often than not these revolutions have ended in failure and even a diminution rather than an increase in equality.”

“Thus confirming Orwell’s quip,” I said, “that all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others?”

“Yes,” Tonsor chuckled. “Orwell’s mordant wit gets straight to the heart of the matter: Ideologues have been manipulating the idea of equality for two centuries now. Still, it is equality that has provided the dynamism, the moving force that has energized modern history. The great liberal and leftist revolutions of the past two centuries have all been made in the name of equality.”[13]

This essay is also published on Dr. Whitney’s personal website and is part of a series of conversations with the late Stephen J. Tonsor, who was Professor of History at the University of Michigan. Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative BookstoreThe Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.


[1] Stephen J. Tonsor, “A Few Unequal and Preliminary Thoughts,” in Equality, Decadence, and Modernity: The Collected Essays of Stephen J. Tonsor, ed. Gregory L. Schneider (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2005), pp. 63-65.

[2] This statement stretches the chronology found in J.B. Bury, A History of Freedom of Thought (Kindle ed.), p. 8; Bury’s book is favorably cited by Tonsor and informed some of his thinking on the subject. See Tonsor, “A Few Unequal,” in Equality, Decadence, and Modernity, p. 65.

[3] Again, this statement stretches the chronology found in J.B. Bury, A History of Freedom of Thought, p. 8. See Tonsor, “A Few Unequal,” in Equality, Decadence, and Modernity, p. 65.

[4] Robert Frost, “The Black Cottage,” lines 64, 68-70, in North of Boston (1915). Many thanks to W. Winston Elliott III for reminding me of the origin of those lines.

[5] Peter Novick, That Noble Dream: The “Objectivity Question” and the American Historical Profession (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988).

[6] Tonsor, “A Few Unequal,” in Equality, Decadence, and Modernity, p. 63.

[7] Matthew 20: 1-16.

[8] Tonsor, “A Few Unequal,” in Equality, Decadence, and Modernity, p. 63.

[9] Ibid., p. 64.

[10] Ibid., p. 65.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid., p. 68.

[13] Ibid.

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