America has always had an ambivalent attitude toward equality. In contrast to the social democratic regimes of Europe, the only officially endorsed equality Americans have historically embraced is the narrow sense of equality of opportunity—as opposed to outcome. A suspicion of government interference in economic matters is an attitude that dates from the early days of the republic. When de Toqueville lauded the rough equality of Americans in the 1830s, he made it clear that it is the fluidity of the society that impressed him: “I do not mean that there is any lack of wealthy individuals in the United States....But wealth circulates with inconceivable rapidity, and experience shows that it is rare to find two succeeding generations in the full enjoyment of it.”
Lincoln made much the same point: “[It is] best to leave each man free to acquire property as fast as he can. Some will get wealthy; I don’t believe in a law to prevent a man from getting rich [but]...we do wish to allow the humblest man an equal chance to get rich with everyone else.” Yet the vast accretions of personal fortunes and corporate power that accompanied the rough-and-tumble era of free-booting capitalism in the decades after the Civil War—when men like John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, and Jay Gould were building their empires—cast doubt on the reality of the American mythos of equal opportunity.