On August 28, 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. stood at the Lincoln Memorial and admonished America to return to its First Principles. In his I Have a Dream Speech, Dr King looked forward to the day that “this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’” He dreamt of the day when all “would be guaranteed the ‘unalienable Rights’ of ‘Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.’”
Dr. King did not talk about remaking America. His dream was one “deeply rooted in the American dream,” as he said, and one that hearkened back to America’s founding principles. It was not a rejection of our past, but a vision of hope based on the principles of our past.
Based on a series of arbitrary and unjust policies, African Americans were denied basic protections of the rule of law. Segregation prevented access to public accommodations, and many were reduced to poverty as a result of these injustices. Dr. King did not ask African-Americans to be satisfied with their condition, nor did he denounce America as an unjust nation. Instead, Dr. King assured his listeners that their circumstances were contrary to America’s creed. He used the central principle of the Declaration – natural human equality – as a rallying cry for civil rights.
The principle of human equality is the foundation of the Declaration’s statement of natural rights. We are all equal because we all participate in a common human nature. Since we are all equal, we are all entitled to the basic rights that are derived from human nature. From these First Principles, Dr. King understood that all Americans—regardless of skin color—should have access to the rule of law, public accommodations, and thereby have the ability to pursue economic opportunities and, ultimately, happiness.
But Dr. King did not think that the principle of equality meant that everyone should be treated the same. He sought equality of rights and equality before the law, not equality of outcomes or equality as a result. Instead, justice would be when people were judged “by the content of their character” rather than by arbitrary considerations such as skin color. Dr. King did not mean that we should treat people of good character and bad character the same. Actual equality is achieved when arbitrary standards are replaced by meaningful criteria such as talent and virtue. A just country, then, is one in which people are rewarded for acting virtuously and producing success.
The challenge of our time is quite formidable: we face an ever expanding government, exercising a bureaucratic tyranny that suffocates our self-government. Let’s take Dr. King’s teaching to heart: let’s look to our First Principles to guide us through our current political problems and to restore this great country.