USHistory.org: "Democratic Values: Liberty, Equality, Justice"

As you read, consider the European movement laid the groundwork for the ideals of American governments. From where did John Locke think governments derive their authority to rule?

Liberty and equality. These words represent basic values of democratic political systems, including that of the United States. Rule by absolute monarchs and emperors has often brought peace and order, but at the cost of personal freedoms. Democratic values support the belief that an orderly society can exist in which freedom is preserved. But order and freedom must be balanced.

Picture of speaker talking to a crowd.

In the early days of the French Revolution, the members of the third estate agreed to stick together to face the opposition of the king and nobles. The "Tennis Court Oath," where members of the new National Assembly vowed "not to separate, and to reassemble wherever circumstances require, until the constitution of the kingdom is established," became the first step toward representative democracy in France.

The Influence of the Enlightenment

The new American government found its roots in the 17th and 18th century enlightenment in Europe, a movement that questioned the traditional authority of the British monarch to. What gives one person the right to rule another?

Enlightenment philosophes answered the question by acknowledging the importance of establishing order. They were influenced by the chaos of medieval times, when a lack of centralized government brought widespread death and destruction. Havens from invaders and attackers were necessary for survival, so weaker people allied themselves with stronger ones, and kings came to rule who provided protection in return for work and allegiance from their subjects.

Drawing of John Locke

John Locke (1632–1704), the English philosopher, theorized that government was the manifestation of a general will or "consent of the governed" that allowed citizens to change their governors at will. His book, Treatises on Civil Government, influenced the American revolution.

Montesquieu (1689–1755), the French philosopher, wrote with admiration about three "branches" of the American government that checked one another's power.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778), the Genevan philosopher, writer and composer, believed that communities were most justly governed by the general will or majority rule of their citizens.

Although these philosophers believed that rulers were important for maintaining order, they questioned the sacrifice of individual freedom that they saw under European monarchs.

Two Kinds of Balance

Imagine a society where everyone is perfectly free to do as they please. How long would it take for chaos to set in? Order implies a necessary loss of freedom if people are to survive. But how far can imposing order go? Democratic countries cherish individual freedom and generally believe that laws should not be repressive; a little order can be sacrificed in the name of liberty. So one kind of balance is between order and liberty.

Democratic societies also expect another kind of balance: a compromise between liberty and equality. Complete liberty logically leads to inequality. A strong or ambitious person might acquire more goods and property than another, and someone is bound to dominate. But the line has to be drawn before an individual seizes power that greatly restricts the liberties of others.

Delacroix's painting in which a woman holding the French flag high during the French Revolution.

The ideals of the first French revolution also inspired the 1830 revolution in Paris. The ideas of "liberty, equality, and fraternity" were immortalized in the three colors of the French flag. In Delacroix's painting, Liberty is seen leading the people toward these ideals.

Shouldn't governments help preserve some degree of equality for their citizens? But if they overemphasize equality, won't they restrict their citizens' liberty? For example, governments can bring about more equality by taxing rich citizens more than the poor, but if they carry their policies too far, won't they restrict the individual's freedom to strive for economic success? The balance between liberty and equality is an important cornerstone of democratic government.

In the late 18th century the American Founding Fathers created the blueprints for the United States government in an effort to achieve these delicate balances – between liberty and order, and between liberty and equality. Their success is reflected in the continuing efforts to refine them. The formula has changed with time, but the framework provided by the Constitution and the values expressed by the Declaration of Independence remain the same.

Last modified: Monday, March 18, 2019, 1:35 PM