By Richard C. Sinopoli
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Additional resources for From many, one: readings in American political and social thought
Liberalism is a source of continuity in American politics, but what exactly does it mean to be a liberal? "Every man, and every body of men on earth," writes Thomas Jefferson, "possess the right of self-government. They receive it with their being from the hand of nature. " 4 In this remark, Jefferson is using the phrase "self-government" in two distinct sensesone pertaining to individuals, the other to societieseach of which forms a key element of classical or "Lockean" liberalism. When he says that men (and, yes, as we will discuss later, it is worth noting that he refers to men) receive a right of self-governance "from the hand of nature," he suggests that governing oneself as an individual is a fundamental right of human beings.
We are a country made up of different peoples not only in terms of racial and ethnic origin, but of religious affiliation, state and regional identification and interests, urban versus rural upbringings, and occupational and class groupings. A key question for Americans long has been howor whetherwe seek to reconcile our many partial, communal identities with a single identity as Americans. Does the African-American, for example, seek to live a life that is, as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, "deeply rooted in the American dream"?
This liberal faith in the capacity of individuals to direct their own lives without harming others is tempered, however, by the recognition that human beings do not always act as their morality dictates. Indeed, this recognition forms, for liberals, a prime motive for forming government. " 6 We would not need laws to punish wrongdoers, enforce contracts, and the like, if people never were inclined to unfairly take advantage of their neighbors. Sadly, this is not to be expected. So government is instituted first and foremost to preserve those rights to life, liberty, and property that are the birthrights of all persons.
From many, one: readings in American political and social thought by Richard C. Sinopoli