The last two weeks have seen a remarkable conjunction of events of historical significance, culminating today, the 237th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. With the Supreme Court decisions coming thick and fast, followed by Wendy Davis’s filibuster in the Texas legislature, the 150th commemorations of the battle of Gettysburg and the fall of Vicksburg and now Independence Day, it seemed appropriate to step back and see how all these disparate events intertwine and what they say about us as a people.
At first blush, the Supreme Court rulings against DOMA and Prop 8 seemed like a tremendous victory. And for those who live in California and the 12 other states and the District of Columbia who enjoy marriage equality, it was. What about the other 67% of the country’s population? If DOMA was discriminatory, why is it still okay for those other 37 states to continue to discriminate? If LGBT people are equal to heterosexual people in California today, why should LGBT people in Pennsylvania wait 3, 5, 10 years to become equal?
We’ve seen this movie before. We tried the same nonsense with women’s suffrage. Women got the vote in the Wyoming Territory in 1869. Between then and 1920, when the 19th Amendment became law, 11 more states gave women the right to vote. Even if you discount Wyoming as a territory at the time of its action, the first state to institute women’s suffrage was Colorado in 1893. If women were equal to men in Colorado in 1893, why weren’t they equal in all 48 states until 1920?
Why? Because we just can’t seem to grasp the full implication of “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” Now before you go all strict constructionist, I fully understand that, despite all of his Enlightenment principles, it probably didn’t occur to Thomas Jefferson that “men” would be construed to include anything but white men at the time he wrote the Declaration. But Jefferson’s view of the future was far more inclusive. He proposed the abolition of slavery in the original Declaration. And from his own words on his memorial in Washington, “laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths disclosed, and manner and opinions change with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also, and keep pace with the times.”
And so we come to the commemorations at Gettysburg and Vicksburg. Having dropped the ball on slavery at the time of the Revolution, our Founding Fathers left us with the giant blot of slavery to be erased. Based on new historical scholarship, almost 750,000 people were killed, wounded or went missing in the conflict to end slavery and save the Union. And yes, there was all that persiflage about states’ rights and tariffs, but the Southern states themselves explicitly stated they were fighting to retain slavery. Neither the whole bloody slaughter of the Civil War, nor the Emancipation Proclamation, nor the 13th, 14th, 15th or even 24th Amendment could manage to bring equality to the African-American. Neither did the Voting Rights Act of 1965, but it made significant progress in the direction of enfranchisement. Yet just last week, the Supreme Court decided that while equality is still elusive, we’ve made enough progress – for now. And predictably, many of those same states that had been under the watch of the Voting Rights Act, introduced legislation to resurrect barriers to voting, albeit under the guise of preventing “voter fraud”.
Two steps forward, one step back.
Similarly, women face the same types of attack. Once proclaimed equal by the 19th Amendment, we now face an onslaught of laws designed to wrest control of our own bodies from us and put it back under the control of the State. And so we need the strength and commitment of people like Wendy Davis and the packed galleries of the Texas legislature to stand up and say, “Enough!” Over and over again until we get it right.
The underlying problem is that the United States of America is as much an idea as a nation. The millions who have immigrated here since the country’s creation in 1776, have, by and large, seen a principle that welcomed them. All men are created equal, endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights. We the people, each and every one of us, distinct and whole in his or her own right, do ordain and establish this Constitution. Not some subset, not some aristocracy, not an oligarchy. We the people, created equal.
But it’s an idea that evolves and grows. And along the way it creates change. Change is a very scary concept to many people and so the ugly, mean-spirited side of “we the people” shows its face in the need to control, in the lust for power, in the fear of “the other” and “the new”. But the evolution of the idea never stops. It incorporates “the new” and “the other”. It fights back against the ugly and the mean-spirited. The idea can’t be allowed to die.
Every July 4th, we gather around the symbolic communal fire and repeat the words and recite the principles. And every July 4th, just like Bill Murray trapped in Punxsutawney, we still don’t have it right. So we have to look at how far we’ve come, share what we’ve learned since last year, and see how far we have to go. We recommit to keeping the idea alive and growing.
For more on the subject of the U.S. as an idea more than a nation, the introductory portion of this short film speaks far more eloquently than I could. It’s followed by a dramatic reading of the Declaration of Independence by a number of well-known actors. And, yes, that is Mel Gibson immediately following Morgan Freeman. It was made in 2002 before we knew what we know today.