On the 4th of July, in the United States of America, we honor our Declaration of Independence. Its most well-known passage is the foundation upon which the colonists’ grievances were justified; a bold declaration of human rights:
"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed."
The document was written in whole by Thomas Jefferson, then mildly edited by the rest of the "Committee of Five" that was tasked with the undertaking: Jefferson's famous rival and friend, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman and Robert R. Livingston. These men did this in anticipation that a resolution to secede from Great Britain might pass a far less eager "Committee of the Whole." Here, you can read the original document those men drafted, and the extensive changes that greater body insisted upon as conditions for signing on for the project. It's fascinating.
One of our favorite books is "Plain Honest Men: The Making of the American Constitution" by Richard Beeman. It opens with the later story of the “Newburg Conspiracy,” how General George Washington talked down from rebellion Revolutionary soldiers whom our young country, united under the Articles of Confederation, was failing to pay. He then promptly used his own influence to make sure that debt was at least partially met before embarking on a well-earned retirement. As the weak government continued to fail to raise taxes, extreme fiscal restraint in Massachusetts led farmers to Shay’s Rebellion and Henry Knox to report that these struggling citizens “were determined to annihilate all debts public and private.” To requests that he again intercede, Washington responded that his personal influence had met its limit and systemic change was required.
Lacking an ability to secure central resources, a private army was finally raised to quell Shay’s rebellion. As challenges compounded, including major interstate commerce issues and inability to repay foreign loans, the weak government continued to lack quorum. Increasingly alarmed delegates who did gather, numbering twelve delegates from five of the thirteen states, determined to make change. Though they sold the Convention as something far more modest to gain approval – and were limited by further restrictions made by those who grudgingly gave it -- their intent was nothing short of a second revolution. At the continued behest of these artful delegates, Washington agreed to leave his well-earned rest, overcome increasing physical challenges, and put his own feelings aside to preside in a notably objective fashion over the Philadelphia Convention.
The book details the extraordinary process that ensued, fueled considerably by ideas offered by the young federalist James Madison, and tempered mightily by the sharply differing interests of varied colonies and their representatives.
The preamble of the resulting document states that "We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America."
Thus, our Nation was framed, as much as an ongoing process as an end unto itself. It should be noted that although Madison ultimately drafted them, the Anti-Federalists are the ones to thank for the addition of our Bill of Rights, particularly one non-signer of the Constitution, George Mason, who had drafted the Virginia Declaration of Rights. He was never fully satisfied that these provisions, including the added 11th Amendment were sufficient to protect state and individual liberties in the new system. Still, the efforts did much to reconcile our country's diverse interests, to guard against extremes with checks and balances, and to provide recourse in the event of a despot. Still, the procession continues, hopefully enduring toward a more perfect union.
The 2018 removal of Laura Ingalls Wilder's name from the Award her works first inspired illustrates the continuing challenges in reconciling our history of boldly moving forward, with our history of failing to also honor the humanity of indigenous populations, African Americans and others. It's an interesting example as, while the criticism dates back to 1952, two years prior to the initial awarding of the honor, some would argue that the action belies a more complicated, honest and ultimately progressive reality that Wilder portrayed for those times. We are grateful the American Library Association insists that these books should still be read as we believe that, if we are going to move forward in a healthy way, then it is important that we endeavor to more fully understand where those before us were coming from….for better and for worse.
Despite his passionate words against the practice in the original draft of the Declaration, Jefferson never freed his slaves (though Washington did). Worse, it took nearly 100 years for his original plea against slavery to be fulfilled by Abraham Lincoln, shortly before Wilder was born. Lincoln was, indeed, deeply concerned about the morality of slavery, as well as the awful puzzle of how best to overcome it. Although he was himself far less radical, and famously prioritized preserving the Union, he respected and learned much from Frederick Douglass, the self-taught, self-freed, self-made, exceptionally eloquent and outspoken man who was a major force for antislavery and did much to challenge and move the President’s thinking. It’s fascinating to consider how Reconstruction might have proceeded had Lincoln not been shot. As it went, although Douglass continued to have influence, it was another century before the Civil Rights Movement achieved more complete realization of rights for Black people.
Regarding women, back at the beginning Abigail Adams urged husband John “to remember the ladies." Still, the Suffragettes didn’t win a national right to vote until 1920. It finally began to be legal to be LGBTQ in the second half of the 20th century when the raid of the Stonewall Inn prompted riots and, ultimately, the massive Christopher Street Liberation known today as the Pride Parade.
All of these groups, and more, continue to vie for a more fully vested place in “a more perfect union.” Make no mistake, though, from the likely gay General Wilhelm von Steuben who served under George Washington, to the extraordinary slave named Paul Jennings whose rescue of Washington’s portrait was among the least of his accomplishments, to Abigail Adams who consorted closely with and some would consider to be herself one of the founders of our Nation, to Navajo Code Talkers, to endless waves of immigrants yearning to be free dating all the way back as far as we will look…we are all “Real Americans.”
While each group, starting with white men, found themselves struggling to achieve a more just Nation, we are all Americans. Our endeavors to move toward full realization of those “unalienable rights” is as fundamental an activity as our Nation has to offer. Invariably, our individual successes have involved support that defies any boundary of race, creed, or kind. While history teaches us that moral and ethical shortcomings cause lasting harm and have a nasty way of reverberating, it also shows that multitudes are committed to learning and healing. Despite occasional regression and deep, complex challenges, their endeavors have kept us generally moving forward.
As we witness the roiling sea of humanity that is US, we are reminded that freedom isn’t free; that this holds true not only for the soldier who sacrifices his freedom for ours, but for all who would enjoy those liberties. We see the truth that, while those who hold great privilege also have great responsibility, the greatest among us remain human after all and, sometimes, the “least” among us hold power beyond fathom. We lament that human nature is a funny thing that remains a fickle constant whether we think it should or not; something we must accept as we endeavor to reconcile with changes coming fast enough to challenge our most flexible and eager for progress. We realize that, much as we’d like to take refuge in the varied clans of comfort that comprise our motley tribe of United States, the pragmatism summed up in the revolutionary Benjamin Franklin’s famous caveat was wise, “United We Stand, Divided We Fall.”
We see that our fates are inextricably entwined, and that to cease to create something better seems to mean being complicit in something far less. At the same time, we also note that failing to forgive ourselves and others with some grace risks us embodying the very chains we wish to shed. We come to a sense that the American Experiment is an ongoing endeavor that requires…a lot…if we are simply to maintain, let alone rise to more closely approach our most noble ideals.
And so, on this day we consider to be one of lights in the face of darkness, we offer encouragement and gratitude to those who carry forth the best from our past, including a lot of lessons, as well as to all who endeavor in good faith to make things a bit better than they might have been before. To invoke another distinctly American enterprise, we offer this blessing:
“May the force be with you.”