The present belittling the past

Someone I know once asked me, in all seriousness, to show her the provision of the Constitution where it says that the rights of citizens are limited to white male property-owners.

She had heard this so often from so many different people that it is understandable that she thought this was actually in the Constitution.  This goes to show how the Constitution, like the Bible, is something people believe in more than they read, but it also is an example of how so many people nowadays look down on our forebears rather than revering them.

Signing of the Declaration of Independence

My friend and neighbor David White, who teaches philosophy, some years back started a custom of hosting a Fourth of July picnic at his house in which we read aloud the Declaration of Independence.  A few years later, at the suggestion of his wife Linda, we added the Declaration of Sentiments of 1848, by the Women’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, N.Y., and some time after that, excerpts from Frederick Douglass’s speech, The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro, on July 5, 1852, here in Rochester.

Women’s Rights Convention of 1848

The Women’s Rights Convention and Frederick Douglass’s speech are worth remembering, but I don’t agree with those of David’s guests who regard these documents as an unmasking of the hypocrisy, sexism and racism of the Founding Fathers rather than an unfolding of the principles they affirmed.

The ideals of the Declaration of Independence and the rights guaranteed by the Constitution were not applied to everybody all at once.  It took time for this to happen, and in the case of black Americans, it took bloody struggles, of which the Civil War was only part, but it did happen or rather, it is happening—it’s not done yet.

Women and black people would have been unhappy about their position in society in any case, but it was because of the Declaration of Independence that they had a reference point to make a case to males and whites.  When I argue for equal rights, I use the Declaration, the Constitution and other foundational documents in American history as my authorities.  This is one of the reasons I am thankful to be an American.

If white male Americans had been really determined to deny rights to women and people of color, they might have been able to do so to this day—certainly for longer than they actually did.  It is because the founding document of the United States asserts a principle of universal human rights that they can’t do so with a good conscience.

Nor is the present generation of Americans more enlightened than the generation of the Founders.  Our generation can take pride in our breaking down prejudice and unfair discrimination based on race, religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation and other characteristics not of the individual’s own choosing.  But at the same time our generation has turned its back on other basic liberties whose origins are long before the Declaration—the rule of law, trial by jury, freedom of speech, your home as your castle.  Future generations will rightly judge our hypocrisies much more severely than those of the Founders’ generation.

Frederick Douglass

Click on The Declaration of Independence for the full text.

Click on The Declaration of Sentiments for the full text of this and other resolutions of the Women’s Rights Convention of 1848.

Click on The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro for the full text of Frederick Douglass’s 1852 speech.

Click on Winning the Vote: a History of Voting Rights for a brief history of the right to vote in the United States.  You’ll have to click on READ FULL ESSAY to read the whole thing.

A black minister once told me that the Mayflower Compact was irrelevant to him because it only applied to white Anglo-Saxon Protestants.  But in 1620, a person in Britain who was not of noble blood, whatever their color or religion, was as disenfranchised as a person in 1960 in Mississippi who was not of white blood.  The idea that ordinary people could come together and agree on how to govern themselves was a revolutionary step.  It was much more revolutionary than anything that has happened since, and was the seed of many subsequent revolutions, including the civil rights revolution of the 1960s.

Click on Reflections on the Revolution in the United States for the reasons why David White after all has the right idea on how to celebrate Independence Day.  I am old enough to member when listening to patriotic speeches and even reading of the Declaration were as much a part of the Fourth of July as eating hot dogs and watching fireworks.

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One Response to “The present belittling the past”

  1. Ed scutt Says:

    Phil, Thanks for this. I think our forefathers did the best they could given the times and conditions in which they were living.I still don’t see how Jefferson could not have done more to address his contradictions of theory and reality during his lifetime. Ed Scutt


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