| G. Michael Dobbs
Thomas Jefferson was 33 years old and the youngest member of Congress when he traveled to Philadelphia with a draft of a document that altered history. When it was finally adapted by that body, after a number of revisions, the birth cycle for a new country had started.
The Declaration of Independence boldly stated, “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 – That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”
We are a nation of revisions and that is not an inherently bad thing. We mean we are willing to question and examine issues and principles.
When this document was written, despite its definitive statements about equality, women were not the equals of men in the legal sense and slavery existed – so much for a true sense of universal liberty.
We have made revisions over the years that have enabled American society to attempt to live up to standards. Consider how long it took to abolish slavery, how much more time to give women the right to vote and then how many years later for legislation to ensure voting rights for everyone regardless of race and ethnic background.
Consider this: Congress didn’t grant citizenship to native Americans until 1924, but their voting rights were governed by states, some of which didn’t allow them to cast a ballot until 1957.
That was a revision a very long time in coming.
During World War II, the government of the United States imprisoned American citizens of Japanese heritage after seizing their property on the groundless basis they may be more loyal to the Japanese Emperor than to their home country. It was a hideous affront to everything for which the Declaration stood.
And we continue to revise and not only in a positive direction. There have been erosions in voting rights and steps backward in relationships between white, black and Latino America.
This one step forward, two steps back approach to our nation’s policies is nothing new. Consider the words of one of my heroes, journalist and columnist Ambrose Bierce. He defined the word “vote” in his “Devil’s Dictionary” as “the instrument and symbol of a freeman's power to make a fool of himself and a wreck of his country.”
What would Jefferson think of America on July 4, 2017? There are historians steeped in his writings – Jefferson was a prolific letter writer in which he discussed many issues.
The America he knew was raw and hard, a country in its infancy, a country still adhering to slavery. It was a nation that being something other than white, male and at least nominally Protestant was undoubtedly a problem.
Perhaps he would approve a society that certainly on the face of things has more opportunity and more freedom that what he saw in 1776. He might also be angry or sad at a society that still struggles with racism and classism.
It’s my humble opinion our country is far from being a finished piece of work. This is an ongoing experiment. When it works well, it’s spectacular, but when it falters it can fall very hard.
I’d like to think Jefferson would want Americans of the 21st Century to keep fighting the good fight of supporting a way of life that does indeed live up to his Declaration.
Our revisions continue. We just have to go in the direction Jefferson pointed us.