Over 90 percent of Americans believe that equality of opportunity is an “absolutely essential” American ideal—according to Stanford University.
Two questions come to mind immediately:
- What does equality of opportunity mean to Americans?
- And where did this “absolutely essential American ideal” come from?
First of all, what does “equality of opportunity” mean?
- Americans believe everyone should have an equal chance for success—not that all people should actually be equal. This is an important distinction.
- Equality of opportunity is very much tied to the ideal of the American Dream: the chance for our children to have a better life than we do. Traditionally this has meant that they will enjoy a higher standard of living.
- It is also tied to the ideal of individual freedom: the right of all Americans to do what they want in life—to define their personal American dream and to choose their own path to the success they desire.
Second, where does the American ideal of equality of opportunity come from?
- It started with the first settlers who came to the North American continent in the 1600s, leaving everything behind to seek a better life in the new “land of opportunity.”
- The belief was articulated as a national value in the Declaration of Independence of 1776:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
- While it continued to develop as an American ideal through the 1800s, sizable portions of the population were excluded: African Americans, women, and Native Americans. Their legal access to the right of equality of opportunity was delayed until well into the 20th century, and we are still working to make this aspiration a reality for all.
What do equality of opportunity, the American Dream, and individual freedom have in common?
We believe that these three ideals are the foundation of our country—they are what makes the United States unique. From the beginning, immigrants from all over the world have traveled here seeking these benefits, and they come here still. Our common belief in individual freedom, equality of opportunity, and the American Dream, defines our identity and our traditional cultural values.
Indeed, the organization More in Common conducted a huge study that revealed how Americans feel about these cultural values:
To be American, for most, does not require someone to be white or to be Christian. Rather it is to believe in freedom and equality and to pursue the American Dream.
Our task is to focus on these values, see where they came from, and analyze how they have endured since the founding of our nation.
So far, we have examined the value of freedom.
Join us now as we tackle the complex issue of equality of opportunity.
American Handbook: What your grandparents want you to know
By Maryanne K. Datesman
November 24, 2018 DRAFT
Chapter 6: Equality of Opportunity: A mighty aspiration and a challenging paradox
Thomas Peterffy arrived in the United States in December of 1965, with a single suitcase containing a change of clothes, his slide rule, and a handbook on surveying. He was 20 years old, fleeing communist oppression in Hungary. He did not speak any English and he did not have any money.
According to an article in Forbes magazine, Peterffy sought refuge in a Hungarian community in Spanish Harlem:
“It was a big deal to leave home and my culture and my language,” he says. “But I believed that in America, I could truly reap what I sowed and that the measure of a man was his ability and determination to succeed. This was the land of boundless opportunity.”
Peterffy worked his way up from a job in a surveying firm to founding his own company in the 1970s. He was a pioneer in creating ways to conduct stock trades electronically, even before the digitization of the markets. In the 1990s, he founded the Interactive Brokers Group and today, at age 72, his financial worth is estimated at $12.6 billion.
Clearly, the United States did prove to be the land of boundless opportunity for Peterffy, as it has for numerous other immigrant entrepreneurs. Forty-two of the Forbes 400 Richest People in America are naturalized citizens who immigrated to this country, and half of the American tech companies worth $1 billion or more were founded by immigrants.
According to Forbes:
The very act of immigrating, exemplified by Peterffy, is entrepreneurial, a self-selected risk taken in an effort to better one’s circumstances. It’s a mind-set. “You leave everything you have and get on a plane,” says Forbes 400 member Shahid Khan. “You can handle change. You can handle risk. And you want to prove yourself.”
This is not a new phenomenon. The tradition of immigrating to America to have a better life goes back to the beginning of our history, and it is an important factor in the development of our cultural values.
How did Equality of Opportunity become an important American cultural value?
From the beginning, our country was known as “the land of opportunity,” where people could achieve anything they put their mind to, no matter who they were. Contrast that with Europe, where the class system was formalized into an “upstairs/downstairs” society. The upper class lived upstairs and the servants lived downstairs, and they lived their lives in the classes of their birth.
Imagine then, what it must have been like for the settlers to come to a new world of incredible natural resources: a multitude of trees, rich fertile farmland, wild game, an extensive system of rivers, and an agreeable climate. There were relatively few Native Americans living on this land, and they had neither the weapons nor the organization to keep the European settlers out.
Suddenly, colonists were free to create new lives for themselves and their families, and America became a land where everyone had an equal chance at succeeding. All the ingredients were there—no strong government or church to limit their freedom, no social structure that proscribed the parameters of their future lives.
Freedom and economic opportunities flourished, and the colonies evolved. When the colonists decided to band together and create a new country in 1776, they faced an enormous challenge. How could they form a government that acknowledged the great diversity in each colony, while bringing them all together under one national government?
How could they ensure that the land of opportunity would also be a land of equality of opportunity for all Americans? It was a noble experiment—governments had always been created for nations of homogeneous people. The idea of creating a system to govern a diverse heterogeneous people was new!
The United States was the first country built on shared values, rather than shared heritages!
The founders created a system where the power remained in the hands of the people, and individual rights were protected from government interference. They asserted the foundation principle of equality, and then framed a Constitution designed to give citizens equal opportunities to succeed. Citizens would have to figure out how to maintain their individual rights while respecting those of others.
Fortunately, Americans had a whole continent to work with, blessed with abundant natural resources. As the new nation began to function, restless settlers started to push west into new territory. George Washington was inaugurated as the first president in 1789, and the legislative and judicial branches of government began to function.
For the next 100 years, the exploration and settlement of the West had a profound effect on shaping the American character, until the frontier closed in 1890.
How did the American frontier function as a laboratory for realizing equality of opportunity?
On the western frontier, there was more of a tendency for people to treat each other as social equals than there was in the more settled eastern regions of the country. On the frontier, the highest importance was placed on what people could do in their lifetimes. Hardly any notice was taken of their ancestors. Frontier people were fond of saying, “What’s above the ground is more important than what’s beneath the ground.”
Because so little attention was paid to a person’s family background, the frontier offered a new beginning for many Americans who were seeking opportunities to advance themselves. An English visitor to the United States in the early 1800s observed that if Americans experienced failure in business, in politics, or even in love, they moved west to start over.
Opportunities were plentiful on the frontier. There was a continuous need for new settlers: farmers, skilled laborers, merchants, lawyers, and political leaders. There were fewer differences in wealth on the frontier than in the eastern states; Americans lived, dressed, and acted more alike there—rich or poor.
By the 1830s, de Tocqueville could see equality of opportunity at work on the frontier; it continued to develop and was firmly established as the settlements spread throughout the new nation.
Now here’s where it gets tough. While equality of opportunity was being enshrined as an American cultural value, significant numbers of African Americans were living in slavery.
How do we reconcile the ideal of equality of opportunity with slavery?
When most Americans think about slavery, they think about conditions in the South leading up to the Civil War— in the 1850s, but we really need to go back to the colonial period to understand its history.
Slavery was a historical institution that “changed over time and differed from place to place,” according to Dr. Rosemarie Zagarri, a colonial history scholar. From at least 1619, slavery existed in the American colonies, part of the global market for African slaves. Although less than 4% of them were brought to the North American continent, by 1776 there were African slaves in all 13 colonies.
In the North, they worked as “domestic servants, artisans, craftsmen, sailors, dock workers, laundresses, and coachmen.” New York and Philadelphia had significant numbers of enslaved workers, and in Boston and Newport slaves made up as much as 20-25% of the population. In the agricultural South, they were needed for labor-intensive crops such as tobacco in Maryland and Virginia, and rice and indigo in South Carolina. Zagarri says that treatment and duties of enslaved workers varied in different areas.
Whatever the case, slaves were considered property that could be bought and sold. Slaves thus constituted a portion of the owners’ overall wealth. Although Southern slaveholders had a deeper investment in slaves than Northerners, many Northerners, too, had significant portions of their wealth tied up in their ownership of enslaved people.
In this context, when white colonists were rebelling against British rule in 1776, they complained that they were being treated like slaves. It was an effective, emotional argument, but once they made it, the contradiction about their own slave ownership became undeniable. Slavery for blacks—freedom for whites. Zagarri states that they began to rationalize their behavior by arguing that blacks were racially inferior.
The founding fathers had to create a new government that could handle these contradictions, while still defending individual rights and freedoms, and maintaining a balance of power among the newly-created 13 states. They debated the problem of slavery and chose to leave it to the states to decide. Incidentally, the framers of the Constitution did not use the word “equality” in the document.
By the time of the American Revolution, slaves made up 40% of the population of Virginia, and 60% of South Carolina, while the percentages in New England were much lower. This would impact how the population of states would determine the number of representatives to the new republic. The Constitution called for two Senators for each state, regardless of population, while the members of the House of Representatives would be determined by the relative population of each state.
But what about the slaves? How would they be counted? The framers decided that not all people would be equally represented:
- Slaves were counted as three-fifths of a person.
- Women were counted as 100% of a person, but they did not have the right to vote.
- Native American Indians were not counted at all, unless they paid taxes.
What happened to the institution of slavery after the Revolutionary War?
While slavery existed in all of the original colonies when the framers wrote the Constitution, there were patriots who sought to abolish it. During and immediately after the Revolution, many of the colonists did free their slaves. As time went by, slavery ended in the North, but it remained in the South. With the westward expansion from 1790 to 1860, the concern for the balance of power between the slave states and the free states continued; there was an effort to maintain an equal number of slave and free states, as new western territories entered the United States.
It is shocking to see a map of where slavery existed from the Revolutionary War to the Civil War—it covered a huge swath of territory. The United States stopped bringing in African slaves in 1808, but the American slave trade continued around the country as a thriving enterprise.
In fact, the total number of African American slaves increased dramatically—from almost 700,000 in the first census of 1790 to almost 4 million in 1860! And almost a half a million were in states and western territories that made up the Union during the Civil War!
In order to rationalize the existence of slavery in “the land of the free,” there was a continuing attempt to de-humanize enslaved African American people— often tearing families apart when selling them as property. African Americans were not only considered as inferior to whites, they were thought to lack emotional ties to their family members, and be incapable of parental love.
There is a poignant moment in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn where Huck realizes that this is not true. While floating down the river, Huck hears his slave friend Jim crying in the night. Jim spends his night watches “moaning and mourning” for his wife and two children. Though “it don’t seem natural,” Huck concludes that Jim loves his family as much as white men love theirs:
When I waked up just at daybreak he was sitting there with his head down betwixt his knees, moaning and mourning to himself. I didn’t take notice nor let on. I knowed what it was about. He was thinking about his wife and his children, away up yonder, and he was low and homesick; because he hadn’t ever been away from home before in his life; and I do believe he cared just as much for his people as white folks does for their’n. It don’t seem natural, but I reckon it’s so.
It is this moment when Huck’s perspective on slavery and society’s hypocritical, cruel principles shifts; he will not return Jim to his owner, even if it means breaking the law. Huck rips up his letter to Jim’s owner, declaring that he’d rather be damned than defy his gut instinct; “I’ll go to hell,” he says.
What happened to attitudes about slavery as it ended?
The experience of ending slavery was different in the South and in the North. The South was willing to go to war to defend the right to have slaves, while in the North there was a gradual abolition of slavery. The last Northern state to abolish slavery was New Jersey in 1804.
According to historian Kathleen Logothetis Thomas, most northern states chose to phase slavery out “over an extended period of time, reflecting concern over race, social structure, and the economic benefits of owning slaves as property and a labor source.” Adult slaves might have to continue working during their productive years, and then be freed when they grew old, for example, while their children might be enslaved until they entered adulthood.
The process of emancipation in the North was lengthy, often complicated, and may have had unintended consequences. Thomas observes that in areas where slavery was phased out over a number of years, there was “a gradual change in society instead of an abrupt one, and it allowed northern whites to transfer their assumptions about slaves and race onto the freed population.”
In other words, beliefs that slaves were racially inferior were transferred onto freed African Americans.
It took a terrible, bloody Civil War (1861-1865) and a Constitutional amendment (1865) to finally end slavery throughout the United States, but its effects have continued for generations.
What a tragic paradox. In the 1830s de Tocqueville had observed the great equality of the American society at large, but he also predicted trouble between blacks and whites:
These two races are fastened to each other without intermingling; and they are unable to separate entirely or to combine. Although the law may abolish slavery, God alone can obliterate the traces of its existence.
While the cultural values were being forged in the new nation, the practice of slavery denied African Americans every single one of the country’s benefits: freedom, equality of opportunity, and the chance for a better life for their children.
What is the importance of our ideals?
From the beginning, the ideal of equality of opportunity has been just that—an American ideal, an aspiration—a goal we seek for our nation.
We mentioned before that there have been major exceptions to the value of equality of opportunity in the United States: women, Native American Indians, and African Americans.
It took women until 1920 to get the right to vote, and they still may face discrimination in the workplace and unequal pay for equal work compared to men. Efforts to pass an equal rights amendment have so far not been successful.
The Native Americans were treated like foreign enemies: they were killed off, exiled to reservations, and—until 1924—denied U.S. citizenship unless they left their tribes. It was not until 1948 that Indians had full rights to vote and other benefits of citizenship in all states.
The terrible legacy of slavery continues today; there’s no doubt about it. African Americans still face both implicit and explicit discrimination in the United States, a century and a half after slavery was ended.
But here’s the important point to remember: the United States stands for freedom and equality of opportunity for all. Do we have perfect freedom and equality of opportunity for all now? No, we are still striving to meet these ideals. But our government was designed to give us a way to pass laws and even change the Constitution to extend these rights to all Americans.
We are still very much a work in progress. But the ideal of Equality of Opportunity for all Americans is an important value.
We deeply believe that everyone should have an equal chance to succeed.
This is who we are.
The new book is tentatively titled, “American Handbook: What your grandparents want you to know,” written from my perspective as a grandmother.
This is an awesome task, even though we will be drawing on the six cultural values presented on our website and developed in American Ways.
Here are working titles for the first twelve chapters:
- Chapter 1: Desperate times call for desperate measures!
- Chapter 2: Behavior, beliefs, and values: Chipping away at the cultural iceberg
- Chapter 3: We are our beliefs: An overview of our traditional American cultural values
- Chapter 4: Culture wars, and rumors of wars: What divides us now?
- Chapter 5: Our rights and freedoms: What’s so important about our Constitution?
- Chapter 6: Equality of Opportunity: A mighty aspiration and a challenging paradox
- Chapter 7: Self-Reliance: Use it or lose it
- Chapter 8: Competition: Sports and the entrepreneurial spirit
- Chapter 9: Hard Work: What do you do?
- Chapter 10: The American Dream: Dead or alive?
- Chapter 11: Patriotism is not a dirty word
- Chapter 12: Civil Discourse: Talking across the political divide
The final draft version will be out on or before March 1, 2019. It will be available as an eBook, and possibly in a print version in the future.
We’d like to invite you along on this journey—let’s begin a dialogue.
We want your opinions, your stories, and your wisdom. During pre-sale, which ends March 1, 2019, you can sign up for $5.00 to get behind-the-scenes updates on this project, and then receive the final draft version by March 1, 2019.