By Angela Liptack
On July 4, 1776, representatives from cities and rural communities in the English colonies of North America issued the Declaration of Independence. This brief statement rejected the idea of a single individual or a small group having absolute power over a society or country. It rejected government based exclusively on heritage or wealth and intertwined with state-sponsored religion. It resurrected from ancient Athens the revolutionary idea of representative government chosen by those governed.
It had been more than 2,000 years since a people had last tried democracy, so the idea of creating a democratic republic was revolutionary in 1776. The idea that three branches of a national government—executive, legislative, and judicial, each with power to limit overreach by the other—could create just laws that would unify multiple states was revolutionary. The idea that a nation, bound together by a constitution, will not only sustain itself but use its amendment mechanisms to correct its original failings—continues to be revolutionary.
On July 4th, we justifiably celebrate as our heritage the advanced, humanitarian ideals that our nation’s visionary founders declared 246 years ago. Like us, they were fallible humans, products of their time. Like us, they could, and did, state soaring principles and then have their implementation falter because it was cobbled together on compromise, lack of knowledge, and short sightedness. The result? An incomplete effort: A government designed and carried out exclusively by and for propertied white men.
Extraordinarily, they also recognized their own limitations. They provided abilities for the courts, the Congress, and the people at large to expand and improve upon their efforts. Due to that mechanism, the democratic republic they envisioned, fought for, and framed has endured.
More than endured, it has progressed toward a more just democracy through broadened participation, representation, and safeguarding of individual human rights. Women, people of color, and people of many countries of origin and of little or no means made it happen. They did it slowly, at great cost, rising up after countless failures. Often jeopardizing or sacrificing their lives to the cause, these patriots—too few of them well known or recognized by name—forced men to accept that “We the People,” the Constitution’s opening words, mean every living, breathing human being, no matter their gender, lineage, net worth, color, sexual orientation or country of origin.
Positive change for all under our Constitution’s framework has happened infrequently, most of it in the 20th century. The brief period of Reconstruction immediately following the Civil War, in which Black Americans finally had a place at the table (there were more Black members of Congress during the Reconstruction period than there are today), was quickly followed by Jim Crow laws and the destruction of Black communities and businesses, impoverishing and disenfranchising the recently freed enslaved persons. As they had from our nation’s founding and continued well into the 20th century, both political parties were indifferent to or overtly supportive of legally protected, often violent, discrimination against entire classes of people—Black people, immigrants from certain European and virtually all non-European countries, LGBTQIA+ people, low-wage workers, Native Americans, and women, among others.
The shift to a more just democracy began at the end of the 19th century and accelerated in the early 20th century. Congress passed laws that tempered the damage of corporate profiteering by introducing a progressive income tax, antitrust laws, and regulation of interstate commerce. With New Deal legislation in the 1930s, the Constitution and its amendments were deployed to directly improve the lives of all, not just a few. Congress enacted—and the Supreme Court affirmed—nationwide programs and policies to sustain a society rocked by the Great Depression and the horrors and hardships of two world wars. Today we can’t imagine a United States without the legislation enacted in the 1930s to legalize unions and establish the safety nets of Social Security and unemployment insurance.
At mid-century, our nation finally began to apply and enforce the provisions of the Constitution’s 13th, 14th and 15th amendments, enacted during Reconstruction, to grant Black Americans’ (in fact, any citizen of the United States, including those naturalized) full participation in our democracy. It took nearly 100 years for these amendments to begin to deliver on that promise, with enactment of the Civil Rights Act (1964) and Voting Rights Act (1965). Again enacted by Congress and supported by key Supreme Court rulings, America also saw advances for education (desegregation of public schools), due process (the Miranda warning), the environment (establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency), and healthcare (Medicare and Medicaid), to name but a few.
Clearly, many of our forebears—from 18th-century revolutionaries to abolitionists to suffragists to civil rights and environmental activists—did some things right to create and further a democracy that promotes “laws wholesome and necessary for the public good” (Declaration of Independence). This Fourth of July, let’s celebrate what they accomplished. Watch the fireworks. Play majestic music. March in parades. Feast at barbecues. Embrace every neighbor. Lick that ice cream cone. Enjoy July 4th.
Then, on July 5th, face the fact: Far-right extremism has been attacking the revolutionary accomplishments of the Declaration of Independence—and of 20th century America—for some time. Their adherents have nearly gutted the self-correcting elements of our Constitution and its amendments. On July 5th, face this fact. Then resolve to do something about it.
Asked to reflect on our nation’s dangerous trajectory, one politically active and astute Ridgefielder commented, “Ignoring or ridiculing the current state of things, or wallowing in our fears, will not preserve a free and fair democracy. WE, now, are ‘the people’ who need to preserve the democratic ideals of our republic. WE must take action ourselves, just as our ancestors did.”
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