us see that we cannot have freedom without equality. It is out of an
egalitarian commitment that a people grows—a people that is capable of
protecting us all collectively, and each of us individually, from domination.
If the Declaration can stake a claim to freedom, it is only because it is so
clear-eyed about the fact that the people’s strength resides in its equality.
The Declaration also conveys another lesson of paramount impor-
tance. It is this: language is one of the most potent resources each of us has
for achieving our own political empowerment. The men who wrote the
Declaration of Independence grasped the power of words. This reveals
itself in the laborious processes by which they brought the Declaration,
and their revolution, into being. It shows itself forcefully, of course, in the
text’s own eloquence.
When we think about how to achieve political equality, we have to
attend to things like voting rights and the right to hold ofce. We have
to foster economic opportunity and understand when excessive material
inequality undermines broad democratic political participation. But we
also have to cultivate the capacity of citizens to use language efectively
enough to infuence the choices we make together. The achievement
of political equality requires, among other things, the empowerment of
human beings as language-using creatures.
Equality and liberty—these are the summits of human empowerment;
they are the twinned foundations of democracy.
What fragile foundations they are!
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[ 22 ] P R OL OGUE
Political philosophers have taught us to think that there is an inher-
ent tension between liberty and equality, that we can pursue egalitarian
commitments only at the expense of governmental intrusions that reduce
liberty. What’s more, in the last half century, our public discourse has
focused on burnishing the concept of liberty, not equality. Consequently,
we understand the former idea better. We have ideas ready-to-hand about
the danger posed to personal freedom by excessive governmental regu-
lation and the value that lies in autonomy and self-creation. What do we
know any longer about equality?
Because we have accepted the view that there is a trade-of between
equality and liberty, we think we have to choose. Lately, we have come, as
a people, to choose liberty. Equality has always been the more frail twin,
but it has now become particularly vulnerable. If one tracks presidential
rhetoric from the last two decades, one will fnd that invocations of lib-
erty signifcantly predominate over praise songs for equality. This is true
for candidates and presidents from both parties.
Matters have gone so far, in fact, that we have even failed to notice
the disappearance of the ideal of equality from our interpretations of the
Declaration. In the 2012 presidential election, the candidates held their
fnal debates in front of a blue backdrop on which the words of the Decla-
ration were reprinted in white. This inspired the presidential challenger
to rif on the founders’ language. He read out this:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created
equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalien-
able Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of
Then he dwelled on the ideas of life and liberty to argue for military
funding; he focused on the word “Creator” to argue for religious tolera-
tion and freedom. And he emphasized the phrase “pursuit of happiness”
to advocate caring for the needy, pursuing discovery and innovation, and
pruning toward a minimalist government that gets out of the way of indi-
vidual choices about how to pursue dreams.
What happened to equality? On the subject of equality, no more
important sentence has ever been written than the one quoted by the can-
didate, but he had nothing to say about that ideal. Even more surpris-
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P R OL OGUE [ 23 ]
ingly, his opponent did not point this out. Nor, for that matter, did anyone
else in the frenzy of subsequent media commentary.
I have told this story without naming the candidates because the candi-
dates, the parties, do not matter. Yes, it was the Republican, Mitt Romney,
former Massachusetts governor, who glossed the most famous sentence
of the Declaration—the very “proposition” about equality around which
Lincoln crafted his Gettysburg address—without once invoking the idea
of equality. But his Democratic opponent, Barack Obama, our frst Afri-
can American president, never called him on it either.
Political philosophers have generated the view that equality and free-
dom are necessarily in tension with each other. As a public, we have swal-
lowed this argument whole. We think we are required to choose between
freedom and equality. Our choice in recent years has tipped toward free-
dom. Under the general infuence of libertarianism, both parties have
abandoned our Declaration; they have scorned our patrimony.
Such a choice is dangerous. If we abandon equality, we lose the single
bond that makes us a community, that makes us a people with the capac-
ity to be free collectively and individually in the frst place. I for one can-
not bear to see the ideal of equality pass away before it has reached its full
maturity. I hope I am not alone.
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