Image: Voting for Independence (Photo courtesy of nps.org)
In 1776, a group of mostly young men got together and signed a document one of them had written, declaring their independence from a colonial power, largely because they were frustrated with taxes. They knew that the document might well be their death warrant, because it was going to bring the wrath of a mighty empire down upon their heads. They were imperfect men, God knows, and some of the ideals they articulated were not ideals they actually lived, but the ideals themselves have continued to inspire people ever since.
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, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. – Declaration of Independence, 1776
“All men” in that document meant “white property-owning men.” Over 233 years of debate, disagreement, and once, outright war, we have managed to broaden “white property-owning men” to include (ideally, and incompletely) all races of men and women. We still have far to go if our true goal is to reach a state in which all human beings are treated equally under our laws.
The mid-twentieth century saw great strides in that direction, and in the years since, white property-owning men and their supporters have done their best to roll back that progress. Today we have a Supreme Court with a majority of judges who seem devoted to the idea that the 1776 ideals were sufficiently embodied in 1776. The Congress is deadlocked between a Senate dedicated to the notion that the 1776 state of affairs was the ideal, and a House that hungers for the rights of all human beings, women, races, and orientations. Our Executive Branch is headed by a man who embodies the worst of the 1776 situation: he is an aging white man who inherited his wealth, who has no respect for women, minorities, or the poor, and whose great concern is maintaining his and his family’s advantage over others.
I am not celebrating until this country recovers its soul. That soul drove us through debate, disagreement, and war to broaden “white property-owning men” towards an ideal in which all human beings were treated equally under the law. That soul led us to include, not exclude; to give an ear to the voices of the oppressed; to open our gates, if not our hearts, to the refugee.
I persist in believing that we are capable of this better, expanded vision. I persist in doing what I can to make a better day come. I pray that with God’s help, we will find our way out of this darkness.
In 1776, a group of mostly young men got together and signed a document one of them had written, declaring their independence from a colonial power. They signed a document that they did not realize dripped with irony, and thereby set in motion a process and a nation that would lift that document from its small purposes into a greater destiny.
In 1790, one of those men, much older, much wiser, wrote words that still inspire me, the vision I hold for my nation. George Washington was writing to the congregation of a synagogue, a house of Jews, when he wrote:
For happily the Government of the United States gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.George Washington, Letter to Touro Synagogue, August 1790
Again, he, the owner of enslaved people, failed to see the irony in his words, but he was well aware that in no other nation of the world at that time did Jews enjoy the rights that the Jews of the fledgling United States already enjoyed. I like to think that he felt the expansion – he felt the need to open his arms, our arms, to a more complete vision of humanity.
May we all feel that expansion in the days to come, and conquer the contraction upon our hearts!