Between the Hard Rock of Liberty and Equality

One of the aspects that I most enjoy about the privilege of writing weekly posts is the interaction with readers. Now I certainly don't interact with those who consider me as Satan's love child, but I do try to read all lucid correspondence.

It matters little if it is dissenting or concurring, I usually find the exchanges to be a healthy exercise.

Recently, a reader with whom I've had consistent exchanges wrote: "I would also like to ask that future references to America's founding idea include 'liberty'."

The aforementioned request is based on my consistent use of equality with the nation's founding, while omitting liberty. When I thought about the matter, I concluded the request was on point.

Entrenched in the Enlightenment, liberty refers to the freedom that individuals enjoy, while equality refers to treating all individuals in the same manner. One cannot exist without the other.

It is also important that liberty and equality not be viewed as stagnant concepts, beholden to a definition that was determined before electricity and running water.

But there must also be limits. Total liberty would result in chaos, and total equality would reflect a utopian Marxist philosophy that has yet to be achieved in human history.

In America, equality and liberty are the fraternal twins birthed at the nation's founding. And for much of our history they have been embroiled in a sibling rivalry, each in their own way clamoring for the nation's attention. They are inextricably linked, though not always implemented at the same time.

The Declaration of Independence, which in my view serves as the nation's mission statement, declares that all are created equal. Once the country gained its independence from Great Britain, all may have been created equal, but not all were treated the same. And some were denied the liberty implied in the nation's founding.

This tension was exacerbated by the first three words in the Constitution's preamble: "We the People ..."

It raises the question: "Who comprises the 'We'? At the root of this question we find slavery, women's suffrage, as well as the internment of Japanese Americans.

Though not expressly stated in the nation's governing document, the "we" that the founders had in mind were white, male landowners. Looking back, this understanding produced a qualified liberty and a truncated notion of equality. In fact, it wasn't until the Civil War that equality could be viewed on par with liberty.

This is when America became the destination of possibility for many around the world, and soon after, "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free," would be enshrined into the American ethos.

Liberty and equality represent the two principles that co-exist with ongoing friction into the present. On any given day, one can peruse the daily newspaper or favorite website and discover how the notions of liberty and equality are provoking each other.

The contemporary friction could be viewed by the tea party's emphasis on liberty while deemphasizing equality or the Black Lives Matter movement placing more importance on equality. But the Tea Party and Black Lives Matter movement also demonstrate how difficult it can be to reconcile these two ideals.

The tension between liberty and equality can only be settled when they are viewed as subordinate efforts to assist the individual in realizing his or her full potential. If this is not the end goal, could we not conclude liberty and equality are useless pursuits?

Both must be held simultaneously in a delicate balancing act. It is who we are; it is what keeps us dynamic as a nation. For all of our myriad struggles, be they race, gender, religion, political division, sexual orientation and the like, it is these two principles that hold us together, sometimes against our will.

Many of the conversations in our public discourse evolve around some notion of liberty and equality. On those two principles, a group of white male landowners could pledge their lives, fortunes and sacred honor and 187 years later a black man could stand on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and tell the nation about his "dream."

It is can be easy to emphasize one while ignoring the other. But as one reader reminded me with respectful prodding, both are required to make sense of our democratic republic form of government.