The Common Man

My first book, The Common Man: The Meaning of Equality in America, 1776-1948, will be published by the University of Pennsylvania Press as part of the Intellectual History of the Modern Age series.

A recent surge of interest in wealth and income disparities in U.S. history has not translated to a deeper understanding of the way Americans have thought about what equality is: what people have meant when they declare that equality is a feature of humankind. This book aims to change that by stressing the clashing ideas that American intellectuals have advanced about how it is that people are equal and how equality works on a conceptual level, as a truth and a principle of what and how humans really are.

This emphasis on the conflicts among multiple American ideas about equality departs from customary treatments of U.S. history, which have instead insisted upon a single traditional meaning deriving from the Declaration of Independence and persisting up through the present. This standard account imagines the story of equality in America as a sequence of betrayals and renewals, of hypocrisies and re-consecrations: it is not that Americans have disagreed about what equality really means; they have only failed to live up to that meaning.

The Common Man centers around the eponymous figure—which was reinvented as a symbol of equality in the late nineteenth century but retroactively applied to the whole of American history—but it tells the story of the meaning of equality through five central debates paced throughout the history of the nation, ranging from struggles between abolitionists and colonizationists in the early republic to debates between antifascists and imperialists during and after the Second World War.

The Common Man finds its subject in the heart of U.S. history, but it breaks new ground by asking questions that have long been passed over or sidestepped. Moreover, this avoidance has been true not only of historians, but also has been a feature of the whole public discourse on equality. The focus of this discourse has been equality in action: what it would take to achieve equality—usually material equality or equality of recognition—and what kind of society such an achievement would create and what changes it would entail. I break with this pattern of thought by insisting that it is also necessary to understand the history of equality as an object of contemplation, of contention, and of verification. In other words, what have people thought about when they have held equality in their mind as a statement about the way humans are, a proposition subject both to evidence-based debate and experiential confirmation? In short, what does equality’s history look like as a truth to be tested rather than as a plan to be enacted?

It is necessary to undertake this historical work because the conceptual foundations of equality are broadly under attack in a way that we have not seen since at least the Civil Rights Movement and arguably since the defeat of fascism in World War II. If we are to reassert the validity of equality in the face of resurgent bigotry and pseudo-scientific notions of innate gender roles and racial hierarchies, we must have a better sense not only of what we would gain by making society more equal, but also what we will lose by letting our commitment to equality falter.