The Transylvania Times -

Freedom For All

 

July 2, 2018



(This editorial is being reprinted from the July 2, 2015, issue of The Transylvania Times.)

“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 pursuit of Happiness.”

This statement in the Declaration of Independence embodies not only the beliefs of the colonists who sought independence from Great Britain, but also encompasses the dream of what should be a reality for all people – the right to live in freedom in pursuit of their dreams.

The journey towards that dream has been a long, tumultuous and unfinished one. When the Declaration was signed and later the U.S. Constitution was approved, those “unalienable rights” were restricted to a minority of Americans. “Men” simply referred to all white men. And there was favoritism for some who held “property” – in this case slaves – because even though slaves had no rights, they were counted as three-fifths of a person when it came to representation. Thus, states that had significant numbers of slaves were disproportionately over-represented in the Congress.

It was not until the Civil War and President Lincoln’s signing of the Emancipation Proclamation that blacks were granted these “unalienable rights.” But those rights were not fully enacted for decades, particularly in the South, where blacks were treated as second-class citizens and denied many basic rights. It was not until a century later with the signing of the Civil Rights Voting Act that black Americans were able to exercise their “unalienable rights.”

Women too were denied their “unalienable rights.” Even though Abigail Adams advised her husband John to “remember the ladies” when drafting laws for this new nation and “if particular care and attention is not paid to the Ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice, or Representation,” it would be nearly 150 years before women nationwide had the right to vote. Ironically, Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, two of the early leaders for women’s rights movement, were barred from attending the World Anti-Slavery Convention held in London in 1840. (Sadly, once members of one disenfranchised group gain certain freedoms they do not necessarily support the expansion of rights to others.) It wasn’t until 1919 before Congress passed the 19th Amendment giving women the right to vote and another year before the amendment was ratified by the states.

There are hundreds of other examples of Americans being denied fundamental rights due to their ethnicity (Irish, Italians, and Orientals), religious beliefs, sexual orientation or any other category that may have set them apart from the more traditional mainstream culture. And the barriers are not restricted just to voting. Millions of American have been discriminated against in the areas of employment, equal pay, housing, education, etc. Some of these barriers are intentional while others are the unintended consequences of seemingly innocuous decisions. The result, however, is that government and other established institutions have placed roadblocks in many Americans “pursuit of happiness.”

Some believe that the American Republic is in its dying days, that if this country is to survive we must turn back the clock to a former time when they believe life was better. Such a time may have been good for them and people of similar thinking and culture, but it may very well have not been good for others. Indeed, it is a self-centered and defeatist attitude to wish to turn back the clock 50 or 100 years. Certainly we have some major issues, but our efforts to expand the most basic tenets of the Declaration of Independence to all people is not one of them.

Democracy is a messy, complicated process that at times can be quite tumultuous. But any goal worthy of pursuit comes with great challenges. The great challenge and promise of America is that this can be a country where every person can be free to follow his or her dreams; that the labels of color, gender, ethnicity, etc. should be irrelevant; that people should be judged by “the content of their character.”

Over the past 242 years we have made a great deal of progress. The opportunity for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness has been expanded from a small group to nearly everyone. Wednesday, we should celebrate not just the words and foresight of those who wrote and signed the Declaration of Independence, but also honor all of those past and present who sacrificed greatly to expand those “unalienable rights” to the population at large.

 
 

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