After arriving in DC, I needed a little inspiration from one of my favorite founding fathers. My friend Paula and I braved the Summer Sunday crowds so I could stand in the Jefferson Memorial and read these words:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, that to secure these rights governments are instituted among men...”
Over time, the interpretation of great ideas and eloquent words can change. Though it wouldn’t appear so to contemporary Americans, Jefferson’s “equality” was exclusive and did not apply to people of color, the disabled, or even women.
Jefferson wasn’t actually thinking of “all men” when he wrote those words…he was an 18th century slave owner, after all. It would be almost 100 years before the 13th Amendment became part of the constitution to ensure “neither slavery nor involuntary servitude… shall exist within the United States.”
The 15th Amendment, ratified in 1870, made it illegal to deny the right to vote based on "race, color, or previous condition of servitude”. Despite that, it would take another 95 years before African Americans would be eligible to vote in 1965. Two hundred years had to pass before Jefferson’s words applied to black Americans. It was not easily won, tensions are still high and even now “equality” is often more theory than practice.
Women had been organizing to fight for basic rights since around 1840, but were overlooked by the 15th Amendment. It would take an additional 50 years before the 19th Amendment “gave” women the right to vote in 1920, it “only” took 80 years or so for that battle to be won. One hundred forty-four years had to pass before before Jefferson’s words started to apply to women…and 240 years later, most women still earn less than their male counterparts doing the same job.
Some estimate that 90% of Native American peoples died from diseases brought by the Europeans who “discovered” the Americas. Then the new guys tried their best to relocate, assimilate or kill the original Americans. Congress didn’t even “grant” citizenship to America’s remaining First People until 1924. Despite being targeted for genocide and the countless treaties broken by the the US government, Native Americans have a proud warrior tradition of volunteering, fighting and dying for this country. Using the very languages their own country was actively trying to eradicate, Native American Code Talkers were invaluable in WWI and WWII. Even so, they were not eligible to vote in some states until 1957 and were not recognized for their efforts in the war until 2001.
Considering that we are a nation built by immigrants, equality for immigrants has always been a hot topic. Jefferson, who believed immigration was a fundamental right, didn’t like Germans. Hamilton, an immigrant, was anti-immigration. Nineteenth century Americans hated the Irish and Californians pushed for the Chinese Exclusion Act (passed in 1882). Next came a 1917 Act barring citizens of Asian and Pacific nations (except for Japan and the Philippines). In 1924 immigration quotas were set, aimed at limiting Italians, Greeks and Eastern Europeans. Mexicans were first targeted in the early part of the 20th century…and, with WWII, the Japanese and Jewish refugees got their turn. Things changed for a while when John F Kennedy reframed our identity as a “nation of immigrants” and no group was targeted for about a half century. After 9/11, though, restrictions were established for certain Arab and Muslim countries. Despite historical evidence that border walls don’t last, the newest President has promised a wall along our Southern border and has tried to ban immigrants from select countries. Immigration has always been okay for “us” but not “them” (the definition of “them” just keeps changing).
Jefferson is rumored to have had an affair with one of his African American slaves, but interracial marriage was not legal until 1967. That changed, not with loving kindness, but with the Lovings. Mildred and Richard Loving were dragged from their bed and thrown in jail in 1958, for the heinous crime of getting married…because Mildred was black and her beloved was white. Interracial marriage was considered taboo, unnatural and "against God" by many. The ACLU took the Loving case to the Supreme Court and, in 1967, it was determined that laws banning interracial marriage were unconstitutional…Loving won. It ‘only’ took 180 years for this facet of the pursuit of happiness to be realized for couples of mixed race. The fight for loving wasn’t over, though. In 2015 the Supreme Court finally ruled that Americans had the right to marry someone of the same gender, but the battle continues for the equal rights of LGBTQ Americans to be recognized.
The Jefferson Memorial was built during the administration of Franklin D Roosevelt and the quotes immortalized on the monument were chosen because they appeared to support the ideas behind FDR’s New Deal. Jefferson probably wouldn’t have been happy about that. In part because the quotes were edited to "save space", but also because one of the missing parts addressed the right to revolution, which Jefferson believed to be the whole point.
Paralyzed by polio at 39, Franklin D Roosevelt used a wheelchair throughout his presidency and went to great effort to conceal his disability. At that time, it was common for disabled people to be hidden away from view (to put it nicely). Many were permanently institutionalized. At best, they were severely limited by their inability to access schools, jobs and transportation. As the United States’ first disabled President, FDR helped change the way we perceive disabled people…and how they perceived themselves. Even so, after he was elected, it would still take more than five decades of protests and legal action before the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed in 1990. Sure, people could vote from a wheelchair all along…but it took 214 years before they had the right to accessible public transportation for a ride to the poll.
As is often the case, the people who crafted great documents like the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence had people like themselves in mind. Those two documents that define so much of how we see ourselves as Americans were written by older, upper-class, white men. The founding fathers were ahead of their time in some respects but they were also, inescapably, men OF their time. Consciously or not, their ideals were crafted with white men in mind. This is evidenced by the centuries of fights for the “inalienable” rights they outlined to be guaranteed for non-white, non-male American citizens…and the sad fact that we still have to fight for those rights.
I must admit, I've always had a little crush on Jefferson (that brilliant, silver-tongued devil)...but, I came to DC a little miffed at him, I mean, "what the hell, TJ? Why are we still arguing about all this?"
Tonight though, my attention was caught by a quote on a different wall of the Jefferson memorial:
"I am not an advocate for frequent changes in laws and constitutions, but laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered and manners and opinions change, with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times..."
In the 240 years since Jefferson penned those prophetic words, we have seen countless changes. Jefferson might be shocked by some but in most cases he'd be fascinated...I also believe he'd shake his head as sadly as I do about some of what is happening. Battles, discoveries, protests, reinterpretations, incarcerations, developments, deaths and enlightenment have resulted in 27 amendments to our Constitution….sadly, after all that, equality still eludes many Americans.
This country rose to greatness on the shoulders of people of all races, all colors, all belief systems, male and female, immigrant, native and slave. It is our diversity that makes us great…and that makes it all the more unfathomable to me that critical decisions impacting the very lives of ALL Americans are still being made behind closed doors by a handful of rich, white, men.