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TheCanadian Review of American Studies, Volume 10, Number I, Spring, 1979 TheCommitment to Equality inAmericanLife:UndefinedandUnrealized butUndeniable J R Pote. The Pursuit of Equality in American History. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, I978. 380+ xv pp. Bruce C. Daniels Wehold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. These are the most familiar words in American history and unquestionably among the most fateful ever written in the western world.For their felicity and commitment they have inspired universal admiration by Americans, who have given them near scriptural reverence, and by those non-Americans who have pursued visions of social justice in a world of injustices. It is a consummate irony, therefore, that this ringing sentence, which isabsolutely central to the American experience and so inspirational to the dispossessed of the world, should remain undefined two centuries after it became the manifesto of the first large-scale revolution in modern history. All shades of the American political spectrum claim it as their own, and not infrequently, conservatives, liberals and socialists fighting one another to gain control of revolutionary movements in emerging nations each attach it to their banner. 1 It is doubtful 1fany author, including one as visionary as Thomas Jefferson, could have foreseen an impact as significant as this, but the words were not cheap rhetoric meant only to move an aspiring nation to fight a war; they contained a commitment, undefined to those who adopted the Declaration of Independence and have lived for two centuries in the nation it created, unrealized to those who identify themselves as reformers or who view life from the underside of society, but undeniable to those who study American history. 42 Bruce C. Daniels The enormity of grappling with the central proposition in a nation's development no doubt explains why no historian before J. R. Pole has attempted an overarching analysis of the concept of equality in American history. Pole's Pursuit of Equality in American History draws almost exclusively on major secondary works, and, in a manner fittingly reminescent of the synthesizing talents of Richard Hofstadter, to whom the book is dedicated, follows the concept from its gestation through its birth and subsequent development until the present. Hofstadter, who won Pulitzer Prizes for his similar if slightly less audacious pursuits of anti-intellectualism and reform in American history, would surely be excited by Pole's attempt and would probably approve the result, if with a little less enthusiasm. 2 Pole's synthesis is informed, literate, thoughtful and, above all, compassionate, but it falls short in two important ways of sustaining the highest standards setb\ scholars such as Hofstadter. First, it is too narrative and lacks both th~ penetrating analysis and the conceptual framework which are essential forthe insight after which it strives; second, too much of the story is left out forthe book to remain much more than a spur to further study. Of course fe\\ historians can measure up to Richard Hofstadter and perhaps no single book or historian could be comprehensive enough to deal definitively with a subject as immense as equality over three centuries. Nevertheless, we can learn much from Pole's intelligent account. Although first trumpeted to the world as part of the justification for the Revolution, the concept of equality was created out of the matrix formedb} many phenomena: the aspirations of immigrants to improve themselves, the availability of land to indulge these aspirations, the politicization of the common people that derived from the scramble to dominate a polity that wai largely self-governing, the intangible fluidity of a social structure formed b) migration and life in a frontier environment, the religious pluralism ofthe colonial world and British common law. Pole unfortunately fails to identif) and discuss the first four of these seminal contributions, and concentrates hii energy on an explication of religious pluralism and British common law.The omission is significant: religious toleration and political rights may have bee: the most visible parts of the equality edifice but they were undergirded h: important psychological, economic, social and...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1710-114X
Print ISSN
0007-7720
Pages
pp. 41-46
Launched on MUSE
2019-01-02
Open Access
No
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