It seems to me…countries like people mature over time. But maturity isn’t always accompanied by decency or even fair play.
Now, before I go any further, I want to make it crystal clear that I love the United States. This country provided a haven from tyranny for my family at the turn of the last century. Members of my family served to defend this great country and a grandson now proudly serves where daily he may be in harm’s way. I wouldn’t want to be a citizen of any other country. I just want my country to be the best it can be.
But, as we celebrate July Fourth, when our forefathers and foremothers created this wonderful concept of freedom, I can’t but reflect on what that really means after almost 250 years of growing up as a nation. My conclusion is, we are still maturing, but we aren’t there yet.
On July 4, 1776, the leaders of our country introduced a powerful idea in the opening statements of the Declaration of Independence. The Second Continental Congress declared, “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.”
But, in the language used at that time, did the words, “all men” really mean “all mankind”? Since then, men and women have fought and died to preserve that concept even though it didn’t really include some of them. Yet, they had the hope that they were fighting to ensure that the concept indeed applied to all mankind.
Ironically, from the time the first shot was fired in Boston until today, as our country matured, it has been a struggle to live up to these words. Native Americans have faced inequality in a land they inhabited before the rest of us arrived. Men and women who arrived as slaves have been struggling for equality. And, if the words “all men” really meant “all mankind,” women, too, have been struggling for equality.
Despite these struggles, this nation of freedom has very, very slowly matured and allowed those initially denied the freedoms ensured to everyone to slowly enjoy the promises made on July 4, 1776. After almost 2½ centuries – yes, centuries -- we, as a country, have not in full measure applied these unalienable rights, without restriction, to all.
The continuing slow maturity of our country becomes very clear when you look at the slow progression of civil rights legislation.
In 1865 slavery was abolished, but those released from bondage were not guaranteed all those “unalienable rights.” As the years went by, our country had to restate the meaning of freedom by passing the Civil Rights Act of 1866, allowing “all citizens” to make and enforce contracts and to purchase, sell or lease property. That was followed in 1868 by the 14th Amendment, providing voting rights to all “males” over 21. Then the 15th Amendment in 1870 forbade any state to deprive any citizen the right to vote because of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.
The Civil Rights Act of 1875 barred discrimination in public accommodations and on public conveyances on land and water and prohibited the exclusion of African-Americans from jury duty. But this didn’t stop making African-Americans sit in the back of the bus or drink out of separate water fountains. As late as the 1960s, our government had to further clarify the civil rights of folks of color, religion, and gender.
As we have struggled with defining freedom, the Fourth of July has slowly become more a time to have fairs, picnics, cookouts, music and fireworks. Unfortunately, it has become less of a time to recall that we are celebrating how unbelievably unique are those words: “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.”
Those words are why we have made this a special time to celebrate the meaning of freedom. In forgetting, have we slowly allowed various people and groups to interfere with the freedom of others? Have we allowed ourselves to regress into a “them and us” mentality? Have we allowed certain shouting groups to tell us that some of us are not equal? Are we forgetting what this annual celebration is about?
Maturity can be slow. Some things, including humans, mature at different speeds. But isn’t it astounding that we have so greatly matured in medicine, technology, transportation, and many other ways but have, after almost 250 years, still not fully matured on how we treat others?
Although we haven’t fully lived up to those extraordinary words of freedom, I’m hopeful we will get there -- that promise made in 1776 is too great a concept to not mature and ripen and bear the fruits of freedom equally for everyone in future generations.
Harvey Gold is a contributing writer at InsideNova. Reach him at StaffordNews@insidenova.com.