I've been mulling over Danielle Allen's marvelous new book, Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality . It's helped me to think through the reason for my anger over the acts of our justice system and, in turn, one reason why this is so very bad for our nation.
The Declaration declares that "all men are created equal." Since the moment Congress approved the draft, Americans have debated precisely what they--we--meant--mean--by that phrase. Was it only men? White men? All men? Men and women? Did God create? An accident of evolution? Aliens? And what do we mean by equality? Was--Is--it a right or, as Lincoln would have us take it, a proposition, one that needed to be tested not only by a great civil war, but also by the challenges posed to each generation as each makes and maintains a government of the people, by the people, for the people?
As you can tell, I'm inclined toward Lincoln--I live in Illinois, after all--and he not only defined the phrase as a proposition, but he also gave it a particular kind of meaning in his December 1, 1862 Annual Message. He wrote: "In giving freedom to the slave we assure freedom to the free--honorable alike in what we give and what we preserve." Both freedom and equality are, he thought, indivisible. To threaten the equality of one is to threaten the equality of all. Reciprocity underlined and gave force to our most fundamental national values.
Yet there is more to this, as the founders understood. The Declaration, Allen notes, records the first action taken by the American people as a people: they "petitioned [the King] for redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people." To be equal demands reciprocity--responsiveness--in relationships.
What did the colonists want? As a free people, they expected their government to respond. Perhaps they might not get all that they wanted, but their status, their dignity, as a free people demanded of their rulers that they respond fairly, openly, clearly. People have a right, the founders felt, to expect their rulers to understand the people's interests. As Allen writes, "If a king doesn't take his subjects interests to heart, he's not really doing his job. Reciprocity--or mutual responsiveness--is at the heart of justice." That is why the founders included the right to petition in the Constitution. They wrote into the heart of our founding dcuments the demand that the government respond to our grievances.
There is more still, I think. For when rulers, friends, husbands, wives, partners reject the rule of reciprocity, they not only damage the relationship, they also perform a kind of erasure. The right to an honest, heartfelt, thoughtful, caring response is fundamental to our identity. When someone denies us (3x before the cock crows), types us, refuses us, s/he erases us. We are not worthy. We are not a free people, are not citizens, are not due even the courtesy of a phone call, of any sort of recognition. We are wiped away.
In that situation, the founders concluded, a free people must make the ruler respond. They must organize, they must dump the tea into the harbor, they must "effect their Safety and Happiness."
Reciprocity is at the heart of justice. "A long train of abuses and usurpations" has created a situation in which some of our fellow citizens can no longer expect justice, recognition, or reciprocity. We owe it to them, to ourselves, to make it right.