From ‘The President’s House: A History, Volume I’ (White House Historical Association: Washington DC).
On a sweltering July afternoon during the Mexican War, Mrs. Polk and the president were in the upstairs oval room. Shaded by the deep overhang of the south portico, it offered a cool retreat. Seated in a window, fanning, Mrs. Polk fixed her attention on a group of laborers […] on the grounds. She was uncomfortable with the idea that anyone should have to work in such intense heat. “Mr. Polk,” said she, “the writers of the Declaration of Independence were mistaken when they affirmed that all men are created equal.”
“Oh, Sarah,” the president exclaimed, “that is one of your foolish fancies.”
“But let me illustrate,” she continued, “There are those men toiling in the heat of the sun, while you are writing, and I am sitting here fanning myself, in this house as airy and delightful as a palace, surrounded by every comfort. Those men did not choose such a lot in life, neither did we ask for ours; we were created for these places.”
First Lady Sarah Polk (from the mid-19th Century) was a devout Christian fundamentalist. Her belief system included “predestination,” the idea that we are all born into a certain role determined by God.
This little story illustrates quite well how collectivism and socialism are perfectly compatible with fundamentalist religion. Religion — at least fundamentalist religion — teaches us that we do not shape our own destinies; that we are all victims of circumstance. As Sarah Polk pointed out all those years ago, there’s an inherent clash between religious determinism and the Declaration of Independence.
In our own era, Mrs. Polk’s fundamentalist ideas are considered at odds with socialism. In the twenty-first century, if you’re socialist you’re secular. If you’re a fundamentalist Christian, you’re a limited government Republican. It’s no accident that Republicans grow the government almost as much as liberal Democrats. Deep down, each side believes the same thing.
Mrs. Polk, like so many today, confused the concept of equality under the law with equality of conditions. The Declaration of Independence never made a claim that all individuals are equal in character, intelligence or circumstance. It only declared that everyone had a right to be equal under the law. The rest was up to them. We are all equally entitled to pursue happiness. We’re not all equally entitled to achieve the same results.
Fundamentalists like Sarah Polk believe there’s a mysical Higher Power controlling everything. Liberals and Marxists prefer to point to “social forces” or what they imagine to be the coercive power of people with superior ability or wealth. Each arrives at the same conclusion: Government must make sure everything equals out. In practice, it results in equality of poverty and stagnation. Socialist and Communist countires learned this the hard way. Most Americans don’t even (at least yet) have a clue.
Back then, President Polk could dismiss his wife’s ramblings as a “foolish fancy.” Indeed they were. Sadly, 175 years later, that foolish fancy has become the mainstream of political thought and American government. It has resulted in a permanent recession, trillions in debt and, for the first time in American history, a well-founded belief that the next generation will not be better off than the current one.
Trying to make everyone’s condition the same is beyond a foolish fancy. It’s destructive. It has been the source of all the world’s evils and the collapse of every civilization over time. America was supposed to be different. If and when America reverses course and corrects this fatal error, it will once again become the last, best hope for civilization.