Americans wanted a society run on egalitarian principles without wanting a society of equals."" In a comprehensive chronological framework, Pole, a Cambridge scholar, examines American ideas of equality, the groups (workingmen, blacks, women) who tried to realize them, and the institutions, both religious and secular, which determined their practicability. The book begins with an emphasis on the social distinctions that persisted in the emerging 18th-century republic, and ends with a tribute to 20th-century American progress toward government activism on behalf of ""egalitarian policy""; in between, apart from a lingering wish that the New World had shown more concern with redistribution of wealth, he gives a sprightly, challenging sense of the paradoxes and achievements involved in reconciling Protestant individualism with both the ""unified national interest"" and a pluralism of groups not recognized by the Constitution. Jacksonian democracy offered mere laissez-faire ""equality of opportunity,"" and the Progressives' concern with equal rights was not advanced by the New Deal; but what Pole calls the constitutional environment of equality has since been transformed, so that a new set of complex, elusive, self-transforming problems is posed by Affirmative Action efforts. Perhaps fortunately aphoristic rather than systematic in its definitions, wide-ranging in its illustrations, and finally very British in its tendency to appreciate ""self-respect"" and status more than ambition and self-improvement, this is an accessible, fruitful contribution.