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Liberty and Equality Today

When the delegates to the Constitution Convention were preparing to sign the new Constitution, Benjamin Franklin gave a speech to say why his fellow delegates should sign the Constitution. Franklin admitted that it was not a perfect document, and that he had his doubts about some parts of it. Nevertheless, he believed that it was a great framework of government that would protect the liberties of the people and was the best that could be obtained considering that they were fallible men. He and the other Framers affixed their signatures to the great document of freedom because of the promise it had to create a lasting republic on free principles.

It was a unique moment in world history that a scattered and diverse people in America could stop at a critical period to deliberate over a whole new government and the founding of a nation on a core set of principles. The promise of America in the vision of the Founders was that of liberty and equality in the Declaration of Independence and Constitution. The natural rights republic new concept was grounded upon principles that did not change with the passing of time or the changes in culture.  This novus ordo seclorum—“new order for the ages”—was not created for a particular race, privileged aristocratic social class, or member of an established religion, but for all equally.

With all of the promise of these enduring principles, America was a nation in which African-Americans suffered the horrors of slavery, women could not vote, and Native Americans were roundly denied almost any rights.

James Madison wrote in Federalist No. 51 that, “Justice is the end of government. It is the end of civil society. It ever has been, and ever will be, pursued, until it be obtained” (James Madison, Federalist No. 51, 1788).

However, these groups were not living under a just government that protected their rights or fulfilled the purposes for which it was created. But, were the principles of natural justice themselves flawed, or were they applied by fallible men?

For nearly two hundred years, African-Americans, women, Native Americans, and other groups have fought to win equal rights by arguing that America should live up to these ideals.  They wanted the same right to participate equally in the American political system as citizens and enjoy the “American Dream.” They could have rejected that society and its principles for discriminating against them for so long. They could have worked outside the system for radical change or worked to destroy the system as has been done in other countries throughout modern history. However, they consistently appealed to the same principles that animated the Founders in creating the Declaration of Independence and Constitution, and used their right of free speech and freedom of assembly to argue for nothing less than full participation in American society and enjoyment of their equal rights as citizens and humans endowed with inalienable rights.

Even after the many successes the movements for liberty and equality achieved, the debate continued. Today, debates over gay marriage, affirmative action, and economic justice, and the role of the government in resolving these disputes, are still highly contentious. The debates often revolve around different views of what rights are embedded in the natural law as opposed to what might be just commonly held ideas by the majority. At other times, justice can be interpreted as individual conscience applied to society. Is this how the Founders understood natural law or justice? Of course, in any issue, there are contending sides who believe that they are arguing according to a principle. This is why free and open discourse employing reason must guide deliberation in a self-governing society and why reason must trump mere ideology.

Another change in recent American thinking about issues of diversity, equality, and liberty is a redefinition of idea of equality. The Founding vision equality of opportunity, where all have the same chance to employ their talents and merits, in American politics, economy, and society has been supplanted by an advocacy of an equality of outcomes.

Some believe that equal opportunity is often not enough because there are still those who are more successful than others and thus unequal. All people must be made equal by a government which regulates society and reverses centuries of discrimination by granting special favors to certain groups such as women, African-Americans, and Native Americans. Is this a proper understanding of equality? Does this create a more just society? Are certain groups entitled to special protections and favors by the government? Our republic and its free enterprise economy was founded upon the idea of equality under the law in which all had the same opportunity to pursue their happiness.

America has always been and continues to be a diverse country. One question that will confront all Americans is how to ensure that every citizen, regardless of skin color, sex, or religion, will enjoy the liberty and equality that the country was founded upon. Another question is whether Americans will continue to agree upon the fundamental principles upon which the country was founded and the meaning of those principles or whether we will be fragmented into groups with a narrow perspective and only look out for our own interests. The perennial challenge of liberty and equality are how to unite the goals of freedom and the common good.

What was so exceptional about the American Founding was that the nation offered an experiment for mankind in liberty and equality.

The Founders did not merely attack monarchy and aristocracy but looked to build a lasting republic on the principles best suited to human nature. They were not merely locked in their time and place in the eighteenth century but were far-seeing statesmen and lawgivers who framed an enduring Constitution for a lasting republic. Rather than evolving or changing with the times, the Constitution had immutable principles that would allow Americans to govern themselves down through the ages. It did not matter for the Founders what the diverse character of the citizenry was, but rather than they embraced the universal principles upon which America was founded.

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