Posts Tagged ‘Women’s Rights Convention of 1848’

The present belittling the past

July 4, 2012

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.

Independence Day

July 4, 2010

The history of the United States of America is not the history of an ethnic group, or the history of people of any one race or religion.  It is the story of the drafting and signing of two documents, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitutions, the events that led up to it and the consequences that flowed from it.

The Declaration of Independence was, and still is, a radical document.  It affirms there is such a thing as a right of revolution.  It asserts that the only legitimate government is self-government.  It asserts that no government is legitimate if it denies basic human rights.  Very often Americans on the street, when confronted with the words of the Declaration without being told their source, refuse to sign it.

The Constitution was, and still is, a conservative document.  It sets limits on the will of the people.  It creates checks and balances.  It provides a basis for governmental authority.

The Fourth of July, commemorating the signing of the Declaration, is our great national holiday.  But loyalty to the Constitution is the basis of American loyalty.  The President of the United States and all other federal officers, down to the newest inductee into the armed forces, swear to uphold, protect and defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic, and so do immigrants when being naturalized as American citizens.

My friend David White some years back started a nice custom of holding a Fourth of July picnic in his back yard, in which we recited the Declaration.  Later we added related documents, such as the Declaration of Sentiments by the Women’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls on July 4, 1848, and selections from Frederick Douglass’ oration, “What to the slave is the 4th of July?” in Rochester in 1852.

There were a couple of years in which David didn’t give his party.  The first time I felt disappointed, and then I reflected there was nothing to stop me from reciting the Declaration of Independence on my own.  So I did, alone in my house.  I also read the Constitution.

For us, as for Americans in 1848 and 1852, the Declaration and the Constitution are still the benchmarks by which we judge our government and ourselves as a people.  It’s good to stop and remind myself of what’s in them.