The Ongoing Struggle Between Two American Ideals: Liberty and Equality

Inside the biggest fault line between the two parties in American politics today.

Over the last few weeks some of us got a bit of whiplash as we watched right wingers go from protesting against the restrictions put in place to slow the spread of coronavirus, claiming that they were an infringement on their constitutional freedoms, to calling for the imposition of “law and order” on those who were protesting against police brutality following the killing of George Floyd.

While those positions clearly indicate a kind of hypocrisy that can be categorized as “freedom for me, but not for thee,” they are also reminiscent of a struggle that began at our founding between the ideals of freedom (or liberty) and equality.

Whenever people want to emphasize that equality was an ideal supported by our founders, they point to the sentence in our Declaration of Independence stating that “We hold these truths to be self-evident, 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.” And yet, many of those who were responsible for writing that document owned slaves and restricted voting rights to white male property owners.

The key to understanding what our founders meant by that statement in the Declaration of Independence is to be clear about who they were talking about when they referred to “all men.” That certainly didn’t include women. But by the time they wrote that document, the whole field of “scientific racism” had been launched in an attempt to find a biological foundation for white supremacy. In its more brutal interpretation, the “all men” didn’t include people of color, providing an opening for slavery as well as the genocide of Native Americans. When it comes to equality, here is what John Adams wrote to Thomas Jefferson in 1813.

Inequalities of mind and body are so established by God Almighty in his constitution of human nature, that no art or policy can ever plane them down to a level….Jus cuique, the golden rule, do as you would be done by, is all the equality that can be supported or defended by reason or common sense.

That understanding dominated in this country for decades. Even as Abraham Lincoln fought the Civil War against slavery and issued the Emancipation Proclamation, he didn’t believe that blacks were equal to whites. Here is what he said during the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates.

I will say then, that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters of the negroes, or jurors, or qualifying them to hold office, of having them to marry with white people. I will say in addition, that there is a physical difference between the white and black races, which I suppose, will forever forbid the two races living together upon terms of social and political equality, and inasmuch, as they cannot so live, that while they do remain together, there must be the position of superior and inferior, that I as much as any other man am in favor of the superior position being assigned to the white man.

Throughout this country’s history, there have been attempts to suggest that ideals like liberty (freedom) cannot co-exist with equality. As Danielle Allen explained, that conflict gained currency during the Cold War as communists espoused the idea of equality—particularly economic equality. But the Cold War emerged about the same time as the Civil Rights Movement, so the notions of racial equality were also part of that discussion.

In 1960, R. Carter Pittman published an article in the American Bar Association Journal titled, “Equality Versus Liberty: The Eternal Conflict.” He opens with this quote from Alexander Hamilton: “Inequality will exist as long as liberty exists. It unavoidably results from that very liberty itself.” Pittman goes on to claim that the reason the phrase about all men being created equal was included in the Declaration of Independence was because the founders knew that we would need the assistance of France in the revolution against British rule, and notions of equality were a mainstay of the French revolution. Pittman ends with this.

It is inequality that gives enlargement to religion, to intellect, to energy, to virtue, to love and to wealth. Equality of intellect stabilizes mediocrity. Equality of wealth makes all men poor. Equality of religion destroys all creeds. Equality of energy renders all men sluggards. Equality of virtue suspends all men without the gates of Heaven. Equality of love stultifies every manly passion, destroys every family altar and mongrelizes the races of men. Equality homogenizes so that cream does not rise to the top. It puts the eagle in the hen house so that he may no longer soar. It subverts civilization by encouraging the Hottentot to claim equal footing with the cultured and intellectual in any scheme of social administration…Equality may be imposed only in a despotism.

That is the precursor to Joy Pullmann’s claims following a ruling from the Supreme Court that applies prohibitions against discrimination to LGBTQ Americans. Articulating how modern-day Republicans continue to view equality as a threat to their freedom, she wrote that the word “equality” has become a totalitarian weapon.

Since passage of the civil rights laws in the 60s, Democrats have increasingly become the party of equality while Republicans claim the mantle of liberty (or freedom). That has become a somewhat invisible fault line between the two parties on most of the issues under debate today. For example, back in 1976, Herbert Gans made an argument that is prescient for today’s discussions about income inequality.

The political upheavals of the 1960’s and the economic crisis of the 1970’s have spawned a revival of the centuries‐old debate about the conflict between equality and liberty.

In response to recurring calls for tax and other economic reforms that may require a modest redistribution of income and wealth, conservative thinkers protest that egalitarian policies will decimate our most treasured economic and political freedoms. Their protest is understandable, for more equality would reduce their freedoms —but it would also add to the freedoms of other Americans.

The conservatives are wise enough debaters to avoid mentioning that redistributive measures would cut into their fortunes. Instead, they argue that these policies would mean further Government interference in the economy, impairing everyone’s freedom to invest and compete.

A fine freedom in theory; in practice, however, it can be enjoyed mainly by rich corporations and individuals.

When conservatives claim that equality infringes on freedom, the question has always been: whose freedoms are they referring to? The same can be said for claims from Christian nationalists about religious freedoms. They want to use their freedom to discriminate against the freedom that comes with equal rights for LGBTQ Americans.

These two American ideals have been pitted against each other throughout our history. While there is some tension between the two, conservatives have always limited the idea of freedom to those who are privileged in our society. Liberals, on the other hand, have sought to extend those freedoms by affirming the ideal of equality.

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Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60.