The great American novelist Marilynne Robinson recently wrote: “We know … our treatment of immigrants threatens the ideal of a just nation. Why are we paralyzed in the face of these issues of freedom and humanity? Why are we alienated from a history that could help us find a deep root in liberality and shared mutual happiness?”
It’s worth considering those questions, as we celebrate the Fourth of July, along with those important phrases near the beginning of the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men [and that should read people] 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.”
We try to, and often do, live up to those sentiments. But not always. The belief in those self-evident truths makes America great, but we’re not perfect and neither is our nation. Ever since a small group of brave men put their names — with the shadow of a British gallows hanging over them — on a document in Philadelphia in the summer of 1776, we have endorsed by action or silence many legal roadblocks raised to deny or repress the fundamental rights of huge swaths of Americans — women, Native Americans, African-Americans, the disabled, gays, lesbians, transgender people and immigrants.
The Founding Fathers were just the first of many heroic American men and women who have taken a stand against oppression. They were followed by abolitionists like Sojourner Truth, who was born into slavery and later gave hope to so many. Newspaper editor William Lloyd Garrison came under constant attack for his published opinions against slavery. Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton fought for women’s rights with passion and persistence. Notable names in the gay rights movement include Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man to hold public office in the U.S., and who was later assassinated.
The fight for equal rights and opportunity continues in all these movements, here and elsewhere.
Former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote: “The nature of injustice is that we may not always see it in our own times. The generations that wrote and ratified the Bill of Rights and the Fourteenth Amendment did not presume to know the extent of freedom in all its dimensions, and so they entrusted to future generations a charter protecting the right of all persons to enjoy liberty as we learn its meaning.”
To sanctify the men of 1776 can be misguided. Many of them held their fellow human beings in slavery, which, as former President Barack Obama put it, is “America’s original sin.” But their genius was, as Justice Kennedy said, to create a template to enshrine American rights in the future.
None of this country’s greatest achievements have come easily. Justice has to be fought for by every generation if it is to be maintained, and Ms. Robinson’s eloquent questions have to be asked until answers are found.
Happy Independence Day.