One must have some bit of a sense of humor about these things, when maintaining family connections across the pond.
A meaningful activity on this holiday is to reflect upon the Declaration of Independence that was adopted by the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia on July 4, 1776. This declaration was, of course, our declaration of war with the Kingdom of Great Britain, but it was also much more than that. It was our declaration of our sense of identity as a new nation, the values which drew us together and impelled us to pursue the path to freedom for those 13 original states.
The document is not perfect, of course. In many ways, that is because the framers did not believe in the true extent of their words. The most obvious example is the beloved clause near the beginning: “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.”
It was not until another 87 years and a civil war that resulted in 620,000 dead American soldiers — nearly 2 percent of the total population of the country at the time — that most African Americans gained the rights that were inalienably theirs. It took another 100 years after that, years of violence and protest and oppression, before those rights were fully recognized and enforced. And, even now, as we have seen the resurgence of white supremacy and the continued systematic oppression of African American people, you cannot say that a black person has the same access to Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness that a white person does.
Similarly, those first words did not apply to women for the majority of the life of our country. It wasn’t until the passage of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution in 1920 that women were given the right to vote. Many people assume that is when women were given the equal rights enshrined in the ideals of the Declaration of Independence — but that is not the case. The Equal Pay Act, aimed at ending wage disparity based on sex, was not passed until 1963 — and the ideals of that law are still to be realized in our society. It wasn’t until 1972 that the first version of Title IX passed, guaranteeing equal access to education. It wasn’t until 1991 that our Title VII protections were changed to enable women to sue and collect compensatory and punitive damages for sexual harassment.
I mean, it wasn’t until 2010 that employers were required to give women time to breastfeed an infant. The law that changed that? The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.
We clearly have been on a long journey when it comes to women having equal rights in our country. And we are still not there.
Indeed, our country has still been unable to successfully pass the Equal Rights Amendment, first drafted in 1921 and approved by the Legislature in 1972 — sent on to the states for ratification. As advocates argue, this proposed amendment is “designed to guarantee equal legal rights for all American citizens regardless of sex; it seeks to end the legal distinctions between men and women in terms of divorce, property, employment and other matters.”
However, the deadline for ratification passed in 1979 and as recently as this very year, 2019, legislators have been unable to pass a bill that removes the ratification deadline and enables the amendment to move forward to full ratification and inclusion in the Bill of Rights. That’s correct — we are nearly 100 years after the drafting of this amendment and we still have been unable, as a country, to state unequivocally in the Bill of Rights of our Constitution that all American citizens, regardless of sex, should have equal legal rights.
Let’s not forget as well that gay and lesbian Americans did not have a right to the pursuit of Life, Liberty and Happiness through being able to marry the person they loved until June 26, 2015. And even that expanded understanding of the ideals of the Declaration of Independence — and understanding which has the support of two-thirds of all Americans — continues to be under fire in some quarters.
And right now an entire system of immigration enforcement is at work that is predicated upon the concept that those who unlawfully enter our country have absolutely no rights, a system which is creating tremendous human rights abuses that are a stain upon our nation.
Don’t get me wrong. I believe that tomorrow is a day worth celebrating. It is a day to celebrate what truly makes America a great nation. But what makes America great is not hearkening to the success of the Declaration of Independence. It’s not looking back to any day in the past when our country was right.
What makes America great, what makes the Declaration of Independence great, is the persistence of the American people in insisting that we live up to the dream imagined in that stunning piece of prose. What makes us great are the people who fought tirelessly to expand freedom to more people, to get us closer to a place where our society and our laws insist that every single human being — no matter your race or language, no matter your sex or gender, no matter who you love, no matter your citizenship status — does indeed have inalienable rights, the right to Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.
The day we get back to work on that goal, that will be the day our country gets back on the path to American greatness.
About the writer: The Rev. Dr. Jared C. Cramer, Tribune community columnist, serves as rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Grand Haven. Information about his parish can be found at www.sjegh.com.