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Diversity as an American Value

The United States was founded through a deliberative process that examined the wisdom and experience of the ages to discern human nature and the best forms of government that accorded with that nature. The Founders established a republic as the first nation in world history to be based upon certain principles.

In the formulation of the idea of “out of many, one,” diversity is not an end in itself but the unity centered on the principles of liberty and self-government. Americans express their differences in a wide variety of interesting ways, but they commonly embrace a country founded as a republic with limited purposes of government and freedom and equality of individuals.

The Declaration of Independence announced its universal, immutable principles to the world rather than a particular people. It stated, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” Thomas Jefferson, the main author of the Declaration, did not mean that all people are equally intelligent, physically strong, good-looking, or virtuous, but rather they are created equal in their rights and liberties which were built into the fabric of their human nature “from nature and nature’s God.”

The Declaration enumerated basic individual rights: “That they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” (The Declaration of Independence, 1776).

The Constitution created a national government that protects individual liberties of a self-governing people and treats all Americans equally under the law.

Americans have not always lived up to their ideals. Throughout much of American history, African-Americans, Native Americans, and women were denied the most fundamental liberties and equal rights enjoyed by other Americans. African-Americans lived under the brutal regime of racial slavery for close to 250 years. In 1865, slavery was eventually abolished after a bloody Civil War, and African Americans won liberty and equal rights in the next few years with the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution. Nevertheless, African-Americans lived under segregation (separation of the races to give an inferior status to African-Americans) with severe legal restrictions regarding equal civic participation in American life and racism for another hundred years. U.S. policy towards Native Americans alternated between segregation and integration, but both failed to treat Native Americans as free and equal.

Civil rights march 3

The achievement of liberty and equality for all would not have occurred without the courage and perseverance of remarkable leaders in each of the groups whose rights have not been upheld.

For much of the country’s history, American women did not enjoy civil equality or the same economic and educational opportunities as men. They were denied the right to serve on juries, as well as the right to vote because of their sex. Until the mid-1800’s, married women were denied the right to hold property.

Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, WEB DuBois, Booker T. Washington, Thurgood Marshall, Rosa Parks, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., were among the brave African-American leaders who fought against slavery and segregation for liberty and civil rights. Their persistent efforts resulted in the successes of the mid-twentieth century with such landmark court rulings as Brown v. Board of Education (1954), and federal laws including the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that appealed to the conscience of whites and persuaded them as to the justice of the cause.

Since the 1840s, women struggled for the right to vote, which they finally won with the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920. The argument, interestingly, had to persuade some women as well as men that women should vote. Some of the trailblazing leaders of the suffrage and women’s rights movements were Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Lucretia Mott, and Alice Paul.

Ellis island immigrants

During these struggles for liberty and equality, the arguments for equal rights have been grounded in the universal principles of the Declaration of Independence and in the Constitution.

​Native Americans have a different story of their battle for liberty and equality. Their heroic leaders—King Philip, Pontiac, Tecumseh, Black Hawk, Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull, and Spotted Elk, to name but a few—usually had to fight actual battles to survive. Whether they won or lost these battles, they generally could not long stop the advance of Americans to the West as they conquered the continent. They could not survive as the Americans marches westward and pushed the Native Americans farther out West and destroyed their hunting grounds and their way of life. The only options were to fight a war for survival, embrace white ways, or accept the reservation system. Native Americans did not accept the “melting pot” of American principles, nor did they live equally within the “tossed salad” of different groups.

Suffragettes arguing for the right to vote, abolitionist and civil rights leaders from Frederick Douglass to Martin Luther King, Jr., Native Americans struggling for their rights have all appealed to American Founding principles and Founding documents in the fight for liberty and equality. The greatest successes for these groups have come from embracing American Founding principles—not in rejecting them. Indeed, the Declaration of Independence was the first and perhaps still the greatest document of liberty and abolitionism in the history of the world. Although the Founders were men of their age, they were not subject only to the prevailing ideas of their age. In setting the goal of equality and liberty for all, the Founders established a standard to which later generations repaired.

Moreover, these groups did not merely make appeals to the principles of the Founding documents for their liberty and equality but worked within the effective institutions created by the Constitution to fight for equal rights in a practical way. Abolitionists, suffragettes, civil rights advocates, Native American groups organized demonstrations among voters, lobbied members of Congress to change the law for legal protections, urged presidents to act, sued in federal courts, mounted campaigns to amend the Constitution, and worked within the constitutional system to win liberty and equality. Of course, that same Constitution required that a strong majority of the people be enlisted to support their goals of reform, requiring a long effort of persuasion. Sometimes persuasion took the form of appealing to people’s consciences even against the law. So, Martin Luther King, Jr., went so far as deliberately to break the law in his non-violent protests, for example in arranging for Rosa Parks to sit in the front of the bus when by law blacks were required to sit in the back. Nevertheless, progress for these groups was almost invariably achieved through pursuit of change within the constitutional regime.

The challenges confronting the above groups and their successes and failures in achieving liberty and equality, together with the responses of the majority of the American people, are the topics of this section.

The issue of diversity in America can often be very controversial, but the whole point of having a republic is to allow for different points of view to be expressed in deliberation to persuade fellow citizens of our ideas. In fact, most American political debates are about disagreements over liberty and equality. To understand how they came about, and why Americans still disagree on important questions, one must examine the primary sources and be willing to engage in civil debate of diverse opinions. This is how a liberal-arts education can inform a citizen in a self-governing republic.

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