Liberty for All

Democracy in Practice & Principle

When Abraham Lincoln defined democracy by contrasting it to the relationship between masters and slaves, he took for granted that the type of polity he was dealing with, and hoped to reform, was a republic. The first modern republics were supposed to protect and cultivate a people’s liberty. Achieving and maintaining liberty—in the quite precise sense of security against domination—were chief objectives of government.

What made the most productive reform movements of Lincoln’s day democratic, in his eyes, was that they sought to redefine citizenship, the primary locus of responsibility for political arrangements, in terms that did not entail an arbitrary exclusion. Liberty and justice were thus to become liberty and justice for all.

Here we have a cluster of concepts, each of which is sufficiently precise to do the socially significant work of ruling out various things. The democratic turn of Lincoln’s time did not abandon those concepts. Rather, it changed how they are to be applied and what their application is now taken to imply. Conceptual change emerged out of an extended argument over how we are going to live, an argument in which reasons were exchanged, but also one in which people were struggling for authority and power, and deploying coercive force. The process resulted in more determinate conceptions of what liberty, justice, domination, and democracy are.

Far from introducing a more permissive culture, which is to say a weakening of...

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About the Author

Jeffrey Stout is professor of religion at Princeton University. His books include Ethics after Babel and Democracy and Tradition, and the forthcoming Blessed Are the Organized. He is past president of the American Academy of Religion and is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.