The Great Society
The 1960s continued to shift the meaning of “rights” away from its traditional definition. The Founders thought of rights as formal liberties to be exercised by individuals as they wished. Freedom mostly meant the right of a virtuous people to be let alone. Beginning in the Progressive Era and continuing through the New Deal, though, “rights” became understood as entitlements and services that the government would guarantee to certain people at society’s expense. This would be done in the name of democratic equality and of elevating Americans’ quality of life.
In May of 1964, President Lyndon Johnson shared his idea for the “Great Society” in a speech to Michigan college graduates. He drew a contrast between the “turmoil” of Detroit and the “tranquility” of the college campus and explained his view of the challenges that lay ahead for the U.S. In his view, the national government bore the responsibility to address them. He referenced the Declaration of Independence, saying,