Liberty and Equality

The American Conversation

S. Adam Seagrave

Alexis de Tocqueville, one of the greatest commentators on the American political tradition, viewed it through the lens of two related ideas: liberty and equality. These ideas, so eloquently framed by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence, have remained inextricably and uniquely conjoined in American political thought: equality is understood as the equal possession of natural rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. By considering American reflections on these core ideas over time—in relation to constitutional principles, religion, and race—this volume provides an especially insightful perspective for understanding our political tradition. The book is at once a summary of American history told through ideas and an inquiry into the ideas of liberty and equality through the lens of American history.

To a remarkable extent, American politics has always been thoughtful and American thought has always been political. In these pages, we see how some of our greatest minds have grappled with the issues of liberty and equality: Tocqueville and Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton as Publius in The Federalist, James Madison, George Washington, William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln debating Stephen Douglas, and Franklin D. Roosevelt. In essays responding to these primary sources, some of today's finest scholars take up topics critical to the American experiment in liberal democracy—political inequality, federalism, the separation of powers, the relationship between religion and politics, the history of slavery and the legacy of racism. Together these essays and sources help to clarify the character, content, and significance of American political thought taken as a whole. They illuminate and continue the conversation that has animated and distinguished the American political tradition from the beginning—and, hopefully, better equip readers to contribute to that conversation.

“A novel combination of primary sources and accessible essays, Liberty and Equality captures the unique blend of politics and philosophy at the heart of American Political Thought and situates it within the history of political philosophy.”

—George Thomas, author of The Founders and the Idea of a National University: Constituting the American Mind

“By moving between primary documents and insightful contemporary interpretations, this volume gives readers a deep understanding of how the history of American political thought might illuminate an understanding of American politics today. This volume orients readers to the fundamentals of American constitutional democracy—equality, civic virtue, federalism, separation of powers, religious liberty, slavery, and majority rule. Seagrave and his contributors convey a profound understanding of constitutional democracy in America: the intentions that underlie its most central institutions, the ideals these institutions are meant to reflect and serve, and the social facts that distinctively shape both the institutions and ideals.”

—Russell Muirhead, Clements Professor of Democracy and Politics, Dartmouth College

About the Author

S. Adam Seagrave is assistant professor of political science at Northern Illinois University and managing editor of American Political Thought. He is the author of The Foundations of Natural Morality: On the Compatibility of Natural Rights and the Natural Law.

Additional Titles in the American Political Thought Series