The United States of America began with one of the most audacious statements in recorded history. “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. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”
Abraham Lincoln considered Thomas Jefferson’s inspirational words in our Declaration of Independence to express the guiding principles of our nation. Referring after the Battle of Gettysburg to the year 1776, he said, “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.” Now 240 years later, we are still here, but it has been anything but easy.
The democratic principles enshrined in our Declaration of Independence and our Constitution and Republic first surfaced 2500 years ago during the golden years of the Greek city states, principally Athens and Sparta. But the Greeks lost their way. Democracy disappeared. Democracy reappeared during the Roman Republic of Cicero, only to be extinguished by the assassination of Julius Cesar and the rise of the Roman Empire. The Romans couldn’t handle it either. With the ascendancy of the Roman Empire, the aspirations, the values, the principles, the rights in our founding documents — the Vision — effectively disappeared from the face of the Earth for 17 Centuries, for 1700 years, until our ancestors began once again in 1776 to use them as a basis for a people’s government. Democracy had proved to be very volatile. Experiments with it had degenerated into chaos and war, followed by the rise of a dictator to restore civil order.
Turning Jefferson’s dream into reality has been tough at times. In 1776, slavery was not only legal, but protected by the Constitution itself. The only people who were permitted to vote in most states were white men who owned property. Minorities including religious minorities were at best disfavored second class citizens. Our own Supreme Court held that blacks were so inferior that they had no rights the white man was bound to respect. The Confederate States tried to destroy our young country and with it everything for which it stands, just so they could own slaves as property. Women had no constitutional right to practice law or even to vote. Native Americans were ignored altogether and frequently mistreated. It took 150 years — including a bloody Civil War — for most of these ugly exclusionary practices to begin to change, and it was not until 1954 with Brown vs. Board of Education, 1964 with the Civil Rights Act, and 1965 with the Voting Rights Act that African Americans were finally out from under the yoke of legal segregation.
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So what does all this mean? That our nation’s past somehow makes us unworthy of respect? Must we hang our heads in shame? Cover up our sins? To the contrary. Our history led by the spirit of 1776 represents a series of hard-fought victories over the misguided world we inherited, victories we should celebrate, not forget. When we launched our tiny ship of state in 1776, the entire globe suffered from these regrettable conditions. Our founding ancestors were born into a world where slavery was accepted as the norm, virtually everywhere. In Africa, slaves in some areas outnumbered free people by a ratio of 3-1 — and race had nothing to do with it. Women were subservient to men, social and economic station in society were permanently fixed by accident of birth, and hereditary monarchs ruled the Western World. Individuals were “subjects” of the rulers, not citizens, subjects who had no rights.
We, the United States of America, changed all of it. Using our vision and our Constitution, we led the way and the civilized world out of the Dark Ages into the inclusive society we have today, where there are no impenetrable legal barriers, to fulfilling one’s dreams and one’s destiny.
How did we do it? By willingly turning control over to the People instead of the monarchs who claimed their thrones by virtue of “divine right;” by using the Rule of Law and a republican form of government to guide us, not the say-so or the ultimata of unelected tyrannical leaders; and by choosing our leaders and making them answerable to us through periodic elections. In short, we successfully have pursued Jefferson’s Vision of equal opportunity for all.
But before we start to compliment ourselves for a job well done, it’s best to remember we are on a challenging journey that will never end. The stubborn reactionary forces will always be with us, and it will take a concerted effort to keep them at bay.
When Benjamin Franklin exited the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787, an excited woman ran up to him and asked, “Dr. Franklin, what have you given us, a monarchy or a republic?” His reply was, “A republic, if you can keep it.”
Franklin was deadly serious, and keeping it has not been and never will be easy. The Greeks couldn’t do it, and neither could the Romans. We can never let down our guard.
And what will it take to hold our hard-fought ground and to preserve our precious gains? Very simple. Education, civic education and an understanding of our history, of our government, and of our responsibility as citizens to maintain and to nurture our constitutional principles.
Thomas Jefferson put it this way: “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free in a state of civilization, it expects what never was, and never will be.” To accept the many benefits of living in our democratic republic, we must understand and to embrace the corresponding responsibilities and obligations of citizenship. Free riding, taking it all for granted, are not options — if we want to keep it. The quickest way to lose our way is to take our heritage for granted.
However, our Constitution is not self-executing. Every generation must learn its value for itself so that they may rise to Ben Franklin’s challenge — of keeping it. Yes, STEM — science, technology, engineering, and math — is important, but not at the expense of history and government and civics.
And just think, it all started with ideas, a Vision explained in a short document that could have resulted in its author’s execution if King George III had been able to get his hands on him, as well as all the patriots who signed it. July 4, 1776, was the day that marked the beginning of our freedom, with equal rights and the participation of all in the pursuit of our national Vision. Please pause to thank our ancestors for such a perfect gift.
Stephen S. Trott is a judge on the U.S. Court of the Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, based in Boise.