What Did the Founders Mean by ‘Equality’ and ‘Liberty’?
This month, we will view and discuss the second lecture from Hillsdale College’s Constitution 101: “The Declaration of Independence” given by Professor Thomas West.
The Founder’s meant something specific when, in the Declaration of Independence, they put forward the “self-evident Truths” that “all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness…” The self evident truth of equality and these rights were the philosophical foundation that would guide them when they ultimately wrote the Constitution and created a government whose purpose was to preserve and protect these rights.
Understanding what the Founder’s meant, and how that differs from what today’s liberals and progressives mean when they speak of equality and liberty is essential to our mission of spreading liberty throughout the land.
Here is the overview of Professor West’s lecture:
The soul of the American founding is located in the enduring political principles expressed in the Declaration of Independence. The meaning of these principles, especially equality, is decisively different than the definition given to those principles by modern progressivism.
Equality means that nature ordains no one to be the ruler of any other person. Each human being is also equal in his natural rights to life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness. These rights are inalienable and possessed simply by virtue of being human.
Equality, liberty, and natural rights require that legitimate government be republican. The truth that all human beings are born free, equal, and independent means that a just government must be based on the consent of the governed—a consent which must be expressed through ongoing elections. The political theory of the Declaration of Independence requires that government secure the natural rights of the citizens through adopting and enforcing criminal laws; adopting and enforcing civil laws regarding property, family, education, and provision for the poor; and providing for national defense.
If the regime fails to operate according to these principles, the people have a right and duty to alter or abolish the government and establish a new government which will secure rights through the consent of the governed.
The people thus play a vital role in protecting their rights. They must be educated in “religion, morality, and knowledge.” A people that is not virtuous will not be able to perpetuate free government.
Modern liberalism uses the same language of “equality” as the Declaration of Independence. Yet modern liberals mean something altogether different than what the Founders meant by those words. For the Progressives, “equality” means that government must redistribute wealth to provide equal access to resources. This idea necessitates government programs that help mankind liberate itself from its “natural limitations.”
The Declaration of Independence and modern Progressivism are fundamentally opposed to each other. The modern misunderstanding of “equality” threatens the whole of the American constitutional and moral order.
Please make every effort to read the Declaration of Independence and Franklin Roosevelt’s Annual Message to Congress before our meeting. We will discuss the questions below after listening to the lecture. Those so inclined may wish to view the first lecture in the Constitution 101 series, “The American Mind,” by Hillsdale President Larry Arnn. Doing so is not a requirement nor is it necessary for understanding the lecture on The Declaration of Independence.
What surprised you in the lecture by Professor West?
What are the five natural rights governments are instituted to protect?
What are the duties associated with each of those rights?
What are the four functions of government necessary to protect our liberty?
What are the differences between negative and positive rights?
Why are the Declaration of Independence and Progressivism fundamentally opposed to each other?
What new actions do you see you can now take?