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, he announced his dream that “one day 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 longed to see a 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 which, in his words, was “deeply rooted in the American dream.” It hearkened back to the principles upon which our country was founded. It was not a rejection of our past, but a vision of hope based on the principles of our past.
Dr. King held firm to the truths of the Declaration of Independence in a time when the situation of African Americans appeared hopeless. 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.
Dr. King held that 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. For Dr. King, justice was when a person is 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, in Dr. King’s vision, is one in which people are rewarded for acting well.
As Americans, we should take this lesson from Martin Luther King Jr. to heart: we should look to our First Principles to guide us through our current political problems. In his latest book, We Still Hold These Truths: Rediscovering Our Principles, Reclaiming Our Future, Matthew Spalding articulates ten core principles of America that define our national creed and explain our common purpose: These principles are equality, natural rights, consent of the governed, religious liberty, private property, rule of law, constitutionalism, self governmentand independence. Spalding writes:
Only when we know these principles once again can we renew America. Only when we understand the significance of these principles can we grasp the nobility of our accomplishments as a people and see how far we have strayed off our course as a nation. Only then can we realize the societal choices before us and begin to develop a strategy to reclaim our future.
The future of America rests on returning to its First Principles. We face an unprecedented expansion of government power and a new kind of tyranny – a softer, bureaucratic tyranny. As we celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day, let us rely on our First Principles as a guide for the challenges we face ahead.