July 4th, 1776.
The smoke still hung over the battlefields, an acrid blessing that masked the decay of rotting flesh. Such was the sacrifice paid by a group of people who were unwilling to live within the confines of a government they viewed as corrupt and intolerant.
Two days before, on July 2nd, 1776, a group of men with vision known as the Second Continental Congress declared independence. After days of discussion Thomas Jefferson put quill to parchment and penned the famous words, “WHEN in the Course of human Events, it becomes necessary for one People to dissolve the Political Bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the Powers of the Earth, the separate and equal Station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent Respect to the Opinions of Mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the Separation. 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. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient Causes; and accordingly all Experience hath shewn, that Mankind are more disposed to suffer, while Evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long Train of Abuses and Usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object, evinces a Design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their Right, it is their Duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future Security.”
It was a transcendent moment in our nation’s history when everyone stood together and said, “No, we will NOT tolerate such treatment any longer. It cannot be endured. It will not be endured.”
After fifteen months of war (The American Revolution began in April, 1775), an infant nation was born.
It was not an easy birth.
In fact, it was a bloody mess.
What steered our nation through the turmoil of the American Revolution? I believe that we succeeded because the founders of our nation had a clear vision that dictated every action and inspired every sacrifice they offered as they fought for freedom. What was the truth they deemed worth dying for? It is so beautiful and so fundamental that it takes my breath away.
“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.”
And herein lies an interesting dilemma.
Anyone out there stumble over the word choice of Men? It begs the question whether or not the Declaration of Independence was only written to insure the rights of the male gender.
Literal interpretation argues, “Yes, the Declaration states Men; hence, the intent was for male freedom and nothing was ever said about female freedom to equal rights.”
Hmmm . . . does this reasoning sound familiar to anyone?
Logical interpretation argues, “It was a patriarchal society. The meaning of the word Men encompassed all citizens. This word choice reflects the culture of the time period in which the document was written. To limit women’s freedom based on one word taken out of cultural context is to fly in the face of the intended meaning of the Declaration of Independence.”
I’ll give you two guesses (and the first one doesn’t count) which path of interpretation I follow: literal or logical.
Hey, I appreciate the value of maintaining a word’s meaning. I’m a writer, afterall. But I grow deeply concerned when we place higher value on literal meaning than intended meaning. What would happen if we held only the standard of equality based on the literal words of the Declaration of Independence? We would see women’s right to vote, receive equal pay for equal work, own property, choose whom to marry, etc . . . disappear. Scary.
Today the United States of America is 236 years old. Old, right? Ah, no, not really. We are mere teenagers in the scope of civilizations. We remain caught in the grips of growing pains.
Take Civil Rights, for example.
On October 16, 1854, in his Peoria Speech, Lincoln said about slavery “I cannot but hate it. I hate it because of the monstrous injustice of slavery itself. I hate it because it deprives our republican example of its just influence in the world…”
In 1920 the Women’s Suffrage Movement won the right to vote.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed major forms of discrimination against African Americans and women, including racial segregation. It ended unequal application of voter registration requirements and racial segregation in schools, at the workplace and by facilities that served the general public. (Thank you, Wikipedia, for the above factoids.)
We have come so far and yet we still wrestle with applying what we’ve learned when we come face to face with the GLBTQ person who says, “What about me? Don’t I deserve Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness?” (If the right to marry the person you love is not the right to pursue happiness, then I don’t know what is.) We still get hung up on literal meanings of words and forget about the intended message. I can think of no greater example of this than to focus on the word abomination while ignoring the call to love one another which I believe is the primary message of the Bible.
Americans, LISTEN UP! This is our most beautiful legacy: we hold these truths to be self-evident that All PEOPLE are created equal and are endowed by their Creator to certain unalienable rights.
Let us outgrow these awkward teenage years and embrace the Spirit that moved Thomas Jefferson and the members of the Second Continental Congress and make the United States truly a nation that tolerates nothing less than full equality for all people.
To paraphrase someone much wiser than I . . . It is our Right, it is our Duty to protest when our government fails to provide for equal human rights. . . for all humanity is disposed to suffer when Evils are sufferable.