Liberty in Conflict with Equality or Authority

Standard 4.10: Liberty in Conflict with Equality or Authority

Analyze issues involving liberty in conflict with equality or authority, individual rights in conflict with the common good, or majority rule in conflict with minority rights. (Massachusetts Curriculum Framework for History and Social Studies) [8.T4.10]

FOCUS QUESTION: When Were Times That American Realities Conflicted with American Ideals?

First Avenue Bridge mural in Los Angeles

First Avenue Bridge mural in Los Angeles depicts the first female 
Mexican American union leader, Dolores Huerta
 "Dolores Huerta Mural" by Yreina Cervántez is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Tensions between equality and authority, individual rights and the common good, and majority rule and minority rights have marked every period of United States history and they persist in politics and society today.

The nation’s founding documents set forth the ideals of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” (a phrase from the Declaration of Independence). The Pledge of Allegiance declares there is “liberty and justice for all.” But political, social, and economic realities for women, people of color, LGBTQIA individuals, workers and other disenfranchised minority groups have not matched American ideals. Epic struggles have been fought to realize the rights and protections guaranteed to everyone under the Constitution.

At the center of the conflicts outlined in this Standard 4.10 is the interplay between majority rule and minority rights.  This concept is central to democracy—here and around the world. In theory, through open elections and the political process, the majority decides what policies and practices will become law while minority groups with alternative viewpoints and proposals are protected as they seek to create new majorities for their ideas. As Thomas Jefferson said during his First Inaugural Address, "All. . . will bear in mind this sacred principle, that though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will to be rightful must be reasonable; that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal law must protect and to violate would be oppression" (as quoted in Majority Rule and Minority Rights, para. 1).

How have the tensions between majority rule and minority rights been expressed in United States history? The modules in this standard explore that question in the context in the civil rights movements of African Americans, women, LGBTQIA individuals, and workers as well as in the nation's foreign policy and current struggles of transgender students rights in schools.

1. INVESTIGATE: Movements for Civil Rights in United States History

Civil Rights are the freedoms guaranteed to every American under the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. They are rights that protect individuals “against unfair treatment based on certain personal characteristics like race, gender, age, or disability” (Longely, 2019, para. 1).

Throughout our history, individuals and groups who have not had those rights have organized to gain them. African Americans, Latinos/Latinas, Native Americans, Asian/Pacific Islanders, women, workers, disabled individuals, and LGBTQIA people have struggled and fought for their liberties and freedoms as citizens of the United States.

Picture of the AIDS quilt

Picture of the AIDS quilt in front of the Washington Monument
"Aids Quilt" by National Institutes of Health | Public Domain

Exploring civil rights movements provides insights into how people have created change in government, law, and society.

Suggested Learning Activities

2. UNCOVER: Queen Liliuokalani and the American Annexation of Hawaii

Raising flag in Hawaii 1898
"Raising of American flag at Iolani Palace with US Marines in the foreground"
by Frank Davey | Public Domain

On January 17, 1893, Queen Liliuokalani, the ruler of Hawaii, was overthrown by an American-backed group of businessmen and sugar planters (Hawaiian Monarchy Overthrown by America-Backed Businessmen). Historians have concluded that the interests of the Dole Food Company and the growing global Pineapple trade played a key role in the annexation. A resourcesforhistoryteachers wiki page, Annexation of Hawaii provides more on connections between the Dole Food Company, pineapples, and American Foreign Policy.

Prior to the overthrow, the islands had only been unified as the Kingdom of Hawaii since 1795 (Europeans first arrived there in 1778). Liliuokalani was the last monarch before Hawaii became an American territory and eventually the nation’s 50th state on August 21, 1959. In 1993, the United States Congress passed a resolution formally apologizing to Native Hawaiians for American actions nearly a century before (103d Congress Joint Resolution 19: Apology to Native Hawaiians).

Queen Liliuokalani

Queen Liliuokalani was the last Monarch of Hawaii
"Liliuokalani sitting on chair draped with feather cloak"
by James J. Williams
 Hawaii State Archives. Call Number: PP-98-12-002 | Public Domain

The annexation of Hawaii launched an era of expansion and imperialism that many historians refer to as an American empire (Immerwahr, 2019; Hoganson, 2017). The U.S. acquired the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Guam in 1898 at the end of the Spanish-American War. This resulted in the Philippine-American War of 1898-1900, a bloody struggle that cost the lives of 4,200 American and 20,000 Filipino fighters along with some 200,000 civilian deaths. Samoa was annexed in 1899. The Virgin Islands were acquired in 1917.

For many historians, these imperialist actions of the United States are times when the nation’s commitments to liberty, freedom, and individual rights came into conflict with its desires for international expansion and economic goals.

Suggested Learning Activities

  • State Your View
    • How did the imperialist actions of the United States cause conflict (at the time and regarding issues today) with the American ideals of liberty, freedom, and individual rights? 

Online Resources for the Annexation of Hawaii

3. ENGAGE: What are Transgender Students' Rights at School?

Transgender is a term for individuals whose “gender identity differs from the sex they were assigned at birth” (Transgender FAQ, n.d., para. 1). Transgender people may also refer to themselves as “non-binary” or “gender non-conforming.”

A 2018 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that nearly 2% of high school students identify as transgender. The study also found that transgender students face widespread prejudice and discrimination in school and society - 35% of those students have attempted suicide in the past year.

Suggested Learning Activity

Online Resources and Media Gallery

Conclusion to Standard 10

This standard has focused on times in United States history—and during the present day—when individuals and groups struggled to overcome oppression to gain the freedoms they need to be full participants in a democratic society. INVESTIGATE explored movements for civil rights by African Americans, Latinos, women, workers, and LGBTQ people. UNCOVER examined the gaps between American ideals and realities in American foreign policy using a case study of the 1893 Annexation of Hawaii when the islands’ monarch Queen Liliuokalani was overthrown by the United States, an action for which Congress formally apologized a century later. ENGAGE asked what are the rights of transgender students in K-12 schools.

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