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James Fenimore Cooper on Equality


I’m very, very sorry not to have responded sooner to Yuval’s post. That point is well taken. I took, perhaps mistakenly, Cooper to be arguing about political and social institutions rather than aspirational ideals, and perhaps that would explain why he did not mention the Declaration in this passage. Earlier, in the same book, he says: “The celebrated proposition contained in the declaration of independence is not to be understood literally. All men are not ‘created equal,’ in a physical, or even in a moral sense, unless we limit the signification to one of political rights. This much is true, since human institutions are a human invention, with which nature has had no connection.” I am only familiar with The American Democrat (and Last of the Mohicans, but that’s another matter) so I don’t know if he grappled more with the significance of the Declaration in another setting.

I think the Cooper passage is relevant not only for the important distinction you note, but also as a corrective to the idea (implicit in the slogan I noted in my earlier post) that equality is the essential American ideal.