Quote from Cecil Chesterton

Quote from Cecil Chesterton, brother to GK Chesterton, from his slim volume A History of the United States (1919).

I quote it here to help quell the eternal and eternally foolish false controversy provoked by the misreading of the word “equality” propounded during unserious political polemics. 


The first principles set out in the Declaration must be rightly grasped if American history is understood, for indeed the story of America is merely the story of the working out of those principles. Briefly the theses are two: first, that men are of right equal, and secondly, that the moral basis of the relations between governors and governed is contractual.

Both doctrines have in this age had to stand the fire of criticisms almost too puerile to be noticed.

It is gravely pointed out that men are of different heights and weights, that they vary in muscular power and mental cultivation—as if either Rousseau or Jefferson was likely to have failed to notice this occult fact!

Similarly the doctrine of the contractual basis of society is met by a demand for the production of a signed, sealed, and delivered contract, or at least for evidence that such a contract was ever made.

But Rousseau says—with a good sense and modesty which dealers in “prehistoric” history would do well to copy—that he does not know how government in fact arose. Nor does anyone else. What he maintains is that the moral sanction of government is contractual, or, as Jefferson puts it, that government “derives its just powers from the consent of the governed.”

The doctrine of human equality is in a sense mystical. It is not apparent to the senses, nor can it be logically demonstrated as an inference from anything of which the senses can take cognizance. It can only be stated accurately, and left to make its appeal to men’s minds.

It may be stated theologically by saying, as the Christian theology says, that all men are equal before God. Or it may be stated in the form which Jefferson uses—that all men are equal in their “inalienable rights.”

But it must be accepted as a first principle or not at all.

The nearest approach to a method of proving it is to take the alternative proposition and deduce its logical conclusion. Would those who would maintain that the “wisest and best” have rights superior to those of their neighbours, welcome a law which would enable any person demonstrably wiser or more virtuous than themselves to put them to death? I think that most of them have enough modesty (and humour) to shrink, as Huxley did, from such a proposition.

But the alternative is the acceptance of Jefferson’s doctrine that the fundamental rights of men are independent of adventitious differences, whether material or moral, and depend simply upon their manhood.

The other proposition, the contractual basis of human society and its logical consequences, the supremacy of the general will, can be argued in the same fashion.

It is best defended by asking, like the Jesuit Suarez, the simple question: “If sovereignty is not in the People, where is it?” It is useless to answer that it is in the “wisest and best.” Who are the wisest and best? For practical purposes the phrases must mean either those whom their neighbours think wisest and best—in which case the ultimate test of democracy is conceded—or those who think themselves wisest and best: which latter is what in the mouths of such advocates it usually does mean.

Thus those to whom the Divine Right of the conceited makes no appeal are forced back on the Jeffersonian formula.

Let it be noted that that formula does not mean that the people are always right or that a people cannot collectively do deliberate injustice or commit sins—indeed, inferentially it implies that possibility—but it means that there is on earth no temporal authority superior to the general will of a community.

Jefferson, as mouthpiece of the Continental Congress, put forward these propositions as self-evident, and that all America, looking at them, accepted them as such.

On that acceptance, the intensity and ardent conviction of which showed itself, as will presently be seen, in a hundred ways, the American Commonwealth is built.

In the modern haze of doubt and amid the denial of all necessary things, there have been found plenty of sophists, even in America, to dispute these great truisms.

But if the American nation as a whole ever ceases to believe in them, it will not merely decay, as all nations decay when they lose touch with eternal truths; it will drop suddenly dead.