CUREJ - College Undergraduate Research Electronic Journal

Dignity in America: The Role of an Idea During the American Enlightenment

Zachary R. Koslowski, University of Pennsylvania

Division: Social Sciences

Dept/Program: Political Science

Document Type: Undergraduate Student Research

Mentor(s): Rogers Smith

Date of this Version: 09 April 2020



Dignity ideas are experiencing a renaissance in modern American politics. Political leaders on the left and the right have invoked “human dignity” in efforts to justify their candidacies, their policies, and the political, economic, and sociocultural stories they wish to tell about the United States. There is, however, a lack of treatment of these profoundly influential dignity ideas in political science literature. This thesis aims to correct this by demonstrating the centrality of dignity during the American Founding era and the “American Enlightenment” period more broadly. Along with liberalism and civic republicanism, this thesis documents the rise of “dignitarianism” as a new, distinct American political tradition. The interplay of dignitarian thinking with the liberal and republican traditions, along with strong influences from Enlightenment rationalism and Judeo-Christian theologies, yielded correlated strands of dignity thought: namely, “individual dignity” and “national dignity.” Using rich qualitative analysis of primary documents, supplemented by secondary literature, this thesis will argue that these conceptions of dignity played a powerful role in influencing Founding Americans’ views on equality and individual rights – specifically, freedom of conscience, free speech, privacy values, and freedom from cruel and unusual punishment – and the relationship of the citizenry to the nation. National dignity in particular played the strongest role in this latter development, informing American federalism, foreign policy, expansionism, and the treatment of citizens and non-citizens at home. At its best, national dignity advanced individual dignity claims in shows of solidarity, and served as a constructive tool for the building of a new nation. All too often, however, national dignitarianism succumbed to the allures of imperialism and rankism, dehumanizing citizens and non-citizens alike in the name of “national dignity.” The lessons of dignitarianism in the Founding era offers insights into contemporary dignity demands fueled by raging income inequalities, senses of political helplessness, and toxic, narrow nationalisms.


American Politics | Political Science | Political Theory

Suggested Citation

Koslowski, Zachary R., "Dignity in America: The Role of an Idea During the American Enlightenment" 09 April 2020. CUREJ: College Undergraduate Research Electronic Journal, University of Pennsylvania,

Date Posted: 23 November 2020




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