Sound Off! Our Democracy Continues its Complicated Development By Luke Perry
Many of the thoughtful articles this week surrounding the Fourth of July emphasized the Declaration of Independence and natural rights. Often overlooked is that natural rights theory was a body of political thought that predated America.
In fact, the first two natural rights in the Declaration (life, liberty) came verbatim from British political philosopher John Locke, while the third broadened his notion of “property” to “pursuit of happiness.” America uniquely added a fourth natural right, the right to rebel, and was the first country to write natural rights into their founding document.
Natural rights are not absolute, nor legally binding. They are political values that identify areas where government should be limited. In practice, the country has continually debated issues related to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
One timeless challenge of the Declaration is for citizens to be informed about what government is doing, so we can evaluate whether our natural rights are being violated, and if so, actively petition government for change. This is a challenge Americans at large have not met. Most are disinterested and uninformed about government, and could not pass the basic citizenship exam we expect new immigrants to.
The Founders petitioned the British government to live up to the ideals of a political system they believed was the best in the world. When this failed, they engaged in violent rebellion.
Less mentioned this time of year is the Civil War, America’s other major rebellion, which scholars refer to as “The Second Founding.” This moment is equally important to understanding the political values adopted on Independence Day.
Freedom gets most of the attention, and is vitally important, but our political values cannot be rightly understood without similar consideration of equality. In fact, equality is the premise for protecting liberty in the American tradition.
“Endowed by our Creator” has a specific political meaning in Natural Rights theory embraced by the Founders, who reasoned the one thing people universally share is that none of us are God. As a result, each person is naturally born with certain rights that should be widely respected. No one, including kings, can rightly be all powerful. The implication of this reasoning is that we can’t have liberty without sufficient equality.
During the Civil War, the most deadly in America to this day, Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address called for “a new birth of freedom” that sought to better realize that “all men are created equal.” Lincoln saw how the expansion of freedom and property rights, largely a good thing, also led to horrible injustices, like systematically enabling generations of people to own other people.
The long struggle for democracy has been a struggle to better balance the need for liberty with the need for equality. For Lincoln, this was the best way to ensure all those who sacrificed their lives at Gettysburg did not die in vain.
The lessons of the Fourth of July only began on that day in 1776. Speaking of liberty without equality, and the Founding without the Second Founding, is only half of the beautiful and inspiring, complicated and challenging, story of democratic development in this country.
Luke Perry is Chair and Professor of Government at Utica College.