A Case for Dignity

The Fourteenth Amendment’s charter of freedom granted national citizenship to former slaves and guaranteed rights fundamental to democratic liberty, a principle first avowed by the founders and honed by the experience of slavery. My journey to understand the extent of freedom in all its dimensions began as a student at Sarah Lawrence College.

Joshua David Riegel ’02, MA ’04

“I set out with high hope, and a fixed purpose, at whatever cost of trouble, to learn how to read.” With these words, Frederick Douglass, born into slavery, described his resolve to educate himself. Reading Douglass’s 1845 memoir as a first-year student at Sarah Lawrence, I newly understood that for him and for his brothers and sisters in bondage, literacy worked in tandem with emancipation.

This inextricable connection was due in part to Confederate laws banning slave literacy. Slavery demanded the abiding allegiance of chattel to master, whereas literacy allowed for the creation of a private life and moral autonomy. With Douglass’s hope, I came alive as a student and advocate. Through my studies at Sarah Lawrence, within me grew a steadfastness to create spaces of liberty that honor the dignity of those persons and communities who have never known the great promise of our constitutional democracy. I see now that, like Douglass before me, I set out with fixed purpose to better understand both the Fourteenth Amendment’s charter of liberty and African American efforts to make it real.

The decision in Obergefell v. Hodges came down the summer I graduated from law school. The decision was extraordinary because it honored the dignity of sexual minorities by holding that all couples, irrespective of their sex, have a fundamental right to marry under the Fourteenth Amendment. It was historic because it recognized that every human being is possessed of dignity that must be honored regardless of majority preferences.

Reading the decision, I was reminded of Douglass’s high hope: The march of many gay and lesbian couples to legalize their commitments as same-sex marriage bans began to fall nationwide resonated with the dogged determination of former slaves to access the body politic by way of education. As the institution of slavery began to waver, slaves enthusiastically sought literacy for its deeply personal meaning, yes, but also for its insurgent civic meaning: the ability to construct a system of values, to act according to that chosen system, and to advocate for those chosen values as members of the political community. Access to democratic political activity through literacy deepened and focused the struggle against slavery and caste oppression.

“The capaciousness of thought and generosity of spirit that mark the Sarah Lawrence graduate inform daily both the questions I ask about the law and the conviction to speak their answers.”

The scope of the dignity raised in Obergefell is properly understood by asking whether the state action in question is consistent with the tradition and history that produced the Fourteenth Amendment. Curiosity about the meaning of this tradition—first stirred within me at Sarah Lawrence—compelled me to pursue a legal education. Whether writing my graduate thesis about Fannie Lou Hamer’s leadership in the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party or a conference paper about Sojourner Truth’s legal advocacy to free her enslaved son, my study of the African American struggle for civil recognition taught me that history illuminates how tradition is a process by which we develop, revise, adopt, and break from institutions and customs. Sisters Hamer and Truth, possessed of high hope, understood that each person’s relationship to tradition contains a choice about how to move forward as a nation and a people.

The capaciousness of thought and generosity of spirit that mark the Sarah Lawrence graduate inform daily both the questions I ask about the law and the conviction to speak their answers. For their part, the framers of the Fourteenth Amendment lived through a civil war ostensibly fought to resolve the slavery question. Members of the Reconstruction Congress unambiguously asserted that despite emancipation, rights of African Americans remained fragile in the former Confederacy. In light of Congress’ ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment and its grant of national citizenship, legislators in every Southern state amended their constitutions to provide for public education for the benefit of all children. The legislative action of formerly Confederate states shows that the right to education was indivisible from national citizenship and necessary to condemn the social death that alienated slaves from our constitutional democracy.

The Supreme Court has yet to recognize such a federal right. The antislavery tradition teaches, however, that the dignity promised by the Fourteenth Amendment requires setting up institutions that honor people’s self-determination and political participation.

I set out to study law armed with an unyielding desire to secure equal dignity for everyone in our political community. This desire grew from a love discovered and nurtured at Sarah Lawrence—a love for political philosophy and the primary texts of history. Today, I carry with me the intellectual rigor, imagination, and ethical culture that form the bedrock of a Sarah Lawrence education. And these values continue to anchor my courage to rethink accepted truths by embracing the antislavery traditions of education, family autonomy, universal suffrage, and owning the fruits of one’s labors, which together enrich our interpretations, in both constitutional theory and public debate, of the respect for civic dignity required by the Fourteenth Amendment.