“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.”
These are words that we all know. They lead off the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence, that document we celebrate every Fourth of July. Its dramatic approval — complete with a midnight ride — led disenfranchised Colonists to break free from the yoke of distant rule.
“Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security,” the declaration states.
The signers in Philadelphia outlined in the declaration the “history of repeated injuries and usurpations” by King George III of England. Many are well remembered from our history lessons: imposing taxes without Colonists’ consent, failure to ensure jury trials, taking Colonists overseas for trial, quartering troops in private residences.
Other listed offenses include: “He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harrass our people, and eat out their substance” and “He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.”
“In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people,” the declaration states.
American independence was won after eight years of war. Our Founding Fathers then established the basis for our country in the Constitution.
“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,” the preamble reads.
So on the Fourth of July, our Independence Day, we celebrate the achievements of what these documents and the Founding Fathers did to establish the nation.
But we caution against the rhetoric that we live in a flawless society, that the framers believed “all men” were truly “created equal.” Our Founding Fathers were slave-holders. Our Founding Fathers denied women the right to vote.
Associate Justice of the Supreme Court Thurgood Marshall offered controversial — yet painfully obvious — remarks to this effect as the country celebrated the 200th anniversary of the Constitution in 1987.
Marshall, a famed civil rights advocate and attorney before joining the Supreme Court, spoke in that 1987 speech about how such celebrations tend to oversimplify and overlook so many other events that led to “our achievements as a nation.” He said the celebration “invites a complacent belief” that it was our Founding Fathers “who debated and compromised in Philadelphia” yielding “the ‘more perfect Union’ it is said we now enjoy.”
“To the contrary, the government they devised was defective from the start, requiring several amendments, a civil war, and momentous social transformation to attain the system of constitutional government, and its respect for the individual freedoms and human rights, we hold as fundamental today,” Marshall said.
And here we are, 244 years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, 233 years after the drafting of the Constitution, more than 150 years after the 13th and 14th amendments, 100 years since the 19th Amendment, more than more than 60 years since Marshall argued Brown v. Board of Education. Here we are, a nation still struggling to live up to its own ideals, with people still fighting for those “certain unalienable Rights.”
America is a great nation — but there is much work to be done to truly be “a more perfect Union.” And it is up to us — “We the People of the United States” — to make that happen.
This editorial originally appeared in our sister newspaper The Kent County News.