I’ve been ruminating and thinking about this post since the 4th of July (our annual celebration of alcohol and pyrotechnics). We celebrate this day, and we should, but in some circles it comes with a certain amount of anger and division.
Some groups think we should feel gratitude for our freedom and any criticism equates to a lack of patriotism. Others steadfastly insist that our nation continues to fall short and celebrating our freedom is premature as it’s not complete.
Let me, once again, take the middle ground and hopefully shed some light instead of heat. By the way, if you’ve never read the Declaration of Independence it’s worth a read. You can find the text here.
The document makes two declarations: we are no longer a colony of Great Britain, but instead we are an independent nation; and we are all created equal, given our rights by God and not a King.
The first was easy: we are no longer British subjects. Of course the British didn’t agree to this until 1783 when they signed the Treaty of Paris and acknowledged our independence. That was the easy part.
When Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) agreed to write this document he was only 33 years old, but was well read in philosophers of the time. His most famous phrase, our entitlement to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” actually came from John Locke (1632-1704).
Mr. Jefferson also declared that “all men are created equal” even though he would continue to own slaves for the rest of his life. He and the rest of the signers recognized that the survival of this new nation depended on the continuation of the institution of slavery.
I believed Mr. Jefferson struggled with these two aspects of his life. I believe he wished this new nation didn’t depend on slavery but he was aware that it did and was aware that there was no way he could have run his plantation without slaves. I’ve formed this opinion after reading Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves by Henry Wiencek. It’s less than 300 pages and it’s worth a read.
I believe we can equate equality with the ability to vote; if you can’t vote you can’t fully participate in how our nation is run and are always subservient to those who can vote.
But in the late 1700s only a few Americans could vote, basically white, male landowners. Children couldn’t vote (and still can’t). Women weren’t able to vote in all elections until 1920. Residents of Washington D.C. couldn’t vote for President until 1964 and still don’t have representatives in Congress.
And, of course, adult, male, newly freed slaves were guaranteed the right to vote by the 15th Amendment to the Constitution in 1870 but their actually ability to vote was spotty at best (and nonexistent at worst) until civil rights legislation passed in the 1960s.
In short, a look over our history in the last 245 shows that the those eligible to vote has gradually increased. I say this with some irony as I am a white, male, landowner myself.
Several states are passing legislation that I believe intends to discourage voting among certain groups, and I believe that we need to fight against this. And sadly there is reason for discouragement in the short run.
But the phrase “all men (sic) are created equal” has always been inspirational. I believe that if Mr. Jefferson came back to life he would be pleased that the institution of slavery was gone and I hope he’d be embarrassed that his long term relationship with Sally Hemmings, one of his slaves, was known.
In the end I believe we should celebrate the 4th of July while at the same time recognizing that the phrase “all men are created equal” continues to challenge us.