Social Class and Equality in America

The following excerpt comes from Russell Kirk’s excellent little book, The American Cause. Student members get the ebook version of this work free. Become a member here.


The American revolutionary leaders, and the framers of the Constitution, believed that true justice can be obtained through recognizing the legitimate claim of each man to the expression of his own talents and his own personality—so long as his expression of talents and personality does not infringe unduly upon the rights and contentment of other people.

“To each his own” means that every man has the right to seek the fulfillment of his own peculiar nature, to develop to the full the abilities which God has given him, within the bounds of charity and duty. Every man has the natural right to his own abilities and to what he has inherited from his forefathers.

In the just state, the energetic man is protected in his right to the fruits of his endeavors; the contemplative man, in his right to study and leisure; the properties man, in his rights of inheritance and bequest; the poor man, in his rights to decent treatment and peaceful existence; the religious man, in his right to worship; the craftsman, in his right to work. The just state, in short, will endeavor to ensure that no one shall take from another man what properly belongs to his personality, his station in life, and his material interests.

The courts are arbiters when these claims seem to conflict. Further, no man shall be above the law; whatever a man’s family, fame, wealth, or influence, he shall be expected to abide by the general rules of justice, as expressed in courts of law. The founders of the Republic were resolved that political and legal privilege—that is, exemption of certain powerful persons from the jurisdiction of many of the laws of the land, which then was practiced in nearly all the states of Europe—should not be endured in the United States of America. In America, justice should deal impartially with all claims; justice should be no respecter of persons, though justice should be the guardian of personal rights.

The American Concept of Equality

These American statesmen, then, were convinced that men differ in character, talents, and needs. The function of justice is to assure to every man the rights which go with his particular character, talents, and needs.

All men ought to be equal before the law; but the law is not intended to force upon them an artificial equality of condition. Justice does not exist in order to change men’s natures; rather, justice’s purpose is to help men fulfill the particular natures to which they were born. The founders of the Republic did not expect or wish that men ever would be equal in strength, cleverness, beauty, energy, wealth, eloquence, wisdom, or virtue. They did not want a society marked by any such dull uniformity of character. Such a society, in any event, would be impossible to create, they knew; and even were it possible, the result would be boredom and discontent for everyone in it.

In one thing only ought men to be equal, here on earth: equally subject to the operation of just laws. Jefferson, it is true, wrote in the Declaration of Independence “that all men are created equal.” But the members of the Continental Congress who subscribed to that Declaration, and probably Jefferson himself, understood by this phrase that all men have natural rights to the development of personality and to equal justice under the law.

No American leader of that day supposed that the helpless new-born baby is free, in any literal sense; obviously an infant is not born free, literally, but for a long while is in a condition of the most servile dependence. People are born free only in the sense that they are born to the right to seek what suits their nature. Similarly, the leaders of the young Republic were not so impractical as to think that all men are equal in mind or body or character or inheritance or environment; it was even more obvious in the eighteenth century than now that people are created highly unequal in all these respects.

What they understood by the word “equal” in their Declaration of Independence is that all men, regardless of worldly station, enjoy a natural right to equal treatment under the law of the land; no man is privileged by nature to be exempt from the operation of justice. Justice, then, meant to the founders of the Republic the impartial administration of law to secure to every man the things that are his own by nature and inheritance. And this understanding of the nature of justice has for the most part endured in American courts and American public opinion down to our day. Justice does not consist in forcing all people into an artificial and monotonous equality of worldly condition, through the power of the state; such a scheme would have seemed to the Republic’s founders monstrously unjust. For the essence of justice is to assure by impartial adjudication that a man may keep whatever is rightfully his and pursue whatever his honest talents fit him for.

What was the nature of order, in the eyes of the men who established the American political system?

Proper order, they thought, is necessary to any civilized society. And order means that there must be a recognition of different functions and abilities among the members of society. Any society has its leaders.

A justly ordered society will obtain good leaders; a badly ordered society will obtain unscrupulous and incompetent leaders.

The founders of the American nation were republicans, but they did not believe for a moment that all men can be leaders; in any age, it is the nature of things that the few must lead and the many follow. They endeavored to ensure that the American Republic might choose its leaders wisely; and that those leaders’ power might be hedged and bounded by wise constitutions and counter-balancing influences.

These statesmen of the early years of our country never meant to establish a “classless society.” The classless society is the dream of Karl Marx and other nineteenth-century socialists. Classes always had existed in all lands, the Republic’s founders reasoned, and classes are a social product of man’s nature. There were many classes in their own America, and they expected that there always would be: fishermen, farmers, manual laborers, merchants, artisans, bankers, professional people, clergymen, landed proprietors, teachers, servants, soldiers, sailors, clerks, political administrators, shopkeepers, and yet more orders in society—most of them with a useful and inescapable function, and all of them probably destined to endure, as distinct elements in the nation, to the end of time.

There was nothing immoral or obsolete about the existence of class, they felt: class was as natural in society as the separate functions of the brain, the heart, and the lungs in the human body.

Meaning of Aristocracy

So they did not aspire to abolish class. What they disliked was not class, but caste: hereditary distinctions and privileges enforced by law.

The granting of titles of nobility, accordingly, was forbidden expressly in the Constitution; and this violated no man’s inherited rights, for there were virtually no noblemen in America at the time of the Revolution. The founders of the Republic never aimed at the French vision of absolute equality, as preached by theorists like Condorcet. Though they could not abide caste, they heartily approved of “natural aristocracy”—the leadership of men of unusual talents and large resources. Old John Adams, in correspondence with Thomas Jefferson and John Taylor of Caroline, defined an aristocrat as any man who could influence two votes—his own and someone else’s.

An aristocrat, in other words, is a natural leader, qualified by intelligence, charm, strength, cleverness, industry, wealth, family, education, or some other resource to influence the opinions of his neighbors. Jefferson, in Virginia, as strongly supported the claims and rights of an aristocracy of nature as did Burke, in England. The leaders of American thought and politics knew that any society without honorable leaders must be a disorderly society. What they foresaw for the future of the Republic was not, then, the abolition of class and superior talents, but the employment of class and superior talents to the benefit of the commonwealth.

These American statesmen were neither pure aristocrats nor pure democrats. They distrusted both aristocracy and democracy, as unmodified forms of government. A satisfactorily orderly society, they argued, must consist of a mixture of aristocracy and democracy, a balancing and checking and harmonizing of the influence of wealth and private ability with the influence of numbers and popular desire. They wrote into the federal constitution and the state constitutions safeguards against both the power of wealth and the power of needy majorities, against the ambition of gifted men and the appetite of average men. They feared the lust for power of the strong man; and they feared the lust for possessions of the poor man. They knew that some unusual and some ordinary men, in any age, will abuse whatever powers they enjoy.

So the founders of the Republic devised a system of constitutional laws—which will be more fully described in the chapter which follows—that would protect decent social order from either the autocrat or the mob, that would balance the interest and authority of one interest or class in state and nation against other interests and classes, that would provide a democratically based society with a soundly aristocratic leadership.

“Without order, there is no living together in society”: so the authors of the American political system had learned from the English political philosophers, and from their own century and a half of experience in the New World.

As nations go, the American Republic has been amazingly orderly, with only one civil war in its history, no successful revolt since the Declaration of Independence, and very few violent protests against the conduct of government. Among the great states of the modern world, only Great Britain—if one excludes Ireland and the British Commonwealth and imperial possessions—has so enviable a record. Every man seeks order in his own life; he is miserable if he lacks it. And every nation that lacks order is bitterly unhappy.

The American experiment in the keeping of order remains probably America’s proudest just claim to high respect among the nations; it matters far more, for civilization and for American happiness, than the “American standard of living” about which we boast so frequently.


About the Author

Russell Kirk (1918-1994) is widely regarded as one of the twentieth century’s most important men of letters, and is ranked high among the principal architects of the postwar conservative intellectual movement.

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