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Toolbox Library, primary resources thematically organized with notes and discussion questionsOnline Seminars, professional development seminars for history and literature teachersLiving the Revolution: America, 1789-1820
Living the Revolution: America, 1789-1820
Topic: Predicaments of Early Republican LifeTopic: ReligionTopic: PoliticsTopic: ExpansionTopic: Equality
Topic: Equality
Overview of Living the Revolution
Resource Menu: Equality
Text 1. Founding Fathers on Equality
» Reading Guide
•  Link

Text 2. Founding Fathers on Slavery
Text 3. African Americans on Slavery
Text 4. Woman's Role
Text 5. Women on Equality
Text 6. Summing Up
RESOURCE MENU » Reading Guide Link

Reading Guide
1.  The Founding Fathers on Equality
- George Washington, to/from the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, Rhode Island, 1790
- James Wilson, Of Man, as a Member of Society, from Lectures on Law, 1791
- Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, 28 Oct. 1813, excerpt
- James Madison, Note to His Speech on the Right of Suffrage, 1821

  George WashingtonJames Wilson
Thomas JeffersonJames Madison

When we hear the word equality, we think of race, religion, gender, ethnic origin, sexual orientation, and other categories that annually reach the docket of the Supreme Court. But we must re-set our thinking and ask what equality meant to early republican citizens. How did they interpret "all men are created equal?" What categories did they emphasize? Natural rights, virtue, inherent talent, property, opportunity—these categories you'll find in the four short pieces presented here.

The first is a letter from the first Jewish synagogue in America to President Washington, rejoicing in a nation which gives "to bigotry no sanction" (a phrase that Washington repeats in his reply). Next is a piece from jurist James Wilson, a Pennsylvania delegate to the Constitutional Convention, who argues that while men may vary in their virtue and talents they share a fundamental "equality in rights" (sounds obvious to us, but not so in 1791). Then to Jefferson, who lauds the American "natural aristocracy" based on virtue and talent, in contrast to the artificial aristocracies of Europe based on birth and wealth. Finally, James Madison in 1821 revisits the issue of property ownership as a requirement for voting, concluding that "it seems indispensable that the Mass of Citizens should not be without a voice" in electing a legislative branch. Also, revisit Noah Webster's 1802 Fourth of July oration (from the Predicaments sections) for his comments on equality, of which "much is said," he writes, "and little understood." 12 pages.

Discussion questions
  ·  Overall, how do these Founding Fathers define equality?
  ·  Which ideas in these texts are still predominant in discussions on equality today?
  ·  Which are the most removed from current debate? Why? Have they been resolved? forgotten? replaced?
  ·  Other than Noah Webster's oration, what perspectives on equality are voiced in your seminar texts? Whose perspectives have no voice?
  ·  Consider Benjamin Franklin's perspective on equality. Where would he fit in this discussion?

» Link

Topic Framing Questions
  •  What notions of equality were held by early republican leaders? free black men? white women?
  •  How did their notions of equality and rights correspond?
  •  How did each group mold its public voice? How did each use its power?
  •  To what extent did America succeed in "living the revolution" by 1820?

Toolbox: Living the Revolution: America, 1789-1820
Predicaments | Religion | Politics | Expansion | Equality

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