- The American and British Debate over Equality, 1776–1920 by James L. Huston
The current political climate in the United States has led scholars in many fields—from historians to economists—to try to explain how the [End Page 537] nation reached its current position and what the future might hold. One area of concern has been the growing class divide that is accompanying the hoarding of wealth among the top 1 percent and the loss of a viable means of existence for the poor. The United States has always had economic classes, but some wonder if the current extremes are part of a normal cycle or if the nation has reached a tipping point unprecedented in its history. Economist Thomas Piketty has argued that in its early years the United States enjoyed an egalitarian distribution of wealth and income that rivaled that of Sweden in the twenty-first century. Historian James Huston builds on Piketty and uses travel accounts from British sojourners between 1776 and 1920 to conclude that the United States did indeed begin on egalitarian terms before losing its way in the early twentieth century. His book is both an exploration of the merits of an egalitarian society and a call to action to embrace that heritage before it is too late.
Huston contrasts the United States and Great Britain in the nineteenth century to provide a case study that places into stark relief the differences between an egalitarian and an inegalitarian society. Great Britain, the last bastion for traditional aristocracy in the years following the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, was a society in which a small class of wealthy aristocrats eschewed labor and lived leisurely lives by exploiting the labor of the impoverished masses. The aristocracy maintained their status through a land monopoly, the protection afforded by strict inheritance laws, taxes that bilked the poor and protected the rich, and a restricted franchise. This entire system was built on inequality, and those in charge not only admitted the fact but loudly justified it. Across the Atlantic, Americans were creating a contrasting society based on the Declaration of Independence's assertion that all men were created equal. Of course, that nation had its own demons to face in terms of racial, ethnic, and gender diversity issues, but Huston maintains that those issues, while important, did not take away from the fact that Americans were operating under a system that assumed all men were naturally equal under the law and had an opportunity to apply their talents in an environment that offered everyone a large degree of freedom to succeed. This environment included high wages for wage workers and, at least in the rural areas of the northern United States, the opportunity for farm laborers to work their way up and acquire their own land. This gave them a "competence" that allowed them the independence to provide a comfortable existence for their families.
One key part of Huston's argument is that equality took hold and thrived in agrarian areas, and in some ways his conclusions serve as a Jeffersonian "I told you so." Just as Jefferson and Madison had argued, agrarian independence served as the key that not only opened the door for a society based [End Page 538] on equality but also warded off the corruption, exploitation, and decadence of a society based on hereditary and extreme wealth. That type of inegalitarian society would, however, emerge in American cities by the early twentieth century, and several of the writers Huston cites saw that coming and wrote about the emergence of an American aristocracy. Unlike the British aristocracy, which was based on landownership in the country, the American aristocracy would be based on commerce. Both, however, would share the tendency to hoard wealth and the resulting paranoia against the masses, which would grow in tandem with their wealth and their desire to protect it, resulting in disenfranchisement of the lower classes.
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Great Britain began to move...