Can the ‘Spirit of 1776’ heal our nation in 2020?

Every Fourth of July, America’s “first lady of the world,” Eleanor Roosevelt, followed a ritual of reading aloud the Declaration of Independence to guests at her annual Hyde Park picnic. America’s founding document meant so much to her that she devoted her syndicated newspaper column every July to contextualizing the Declaration vis-à-vis events occurring at home and abroad.

As the United States lurched toward entering World War II, already under way in Europe and the Pacific, with democracies attempting to counter the Axis Powers’ spread of fascism, the first lady’s July 4, 1940, op-ed reminded Americans, “We will have to be very sure what we want for ourselves and our fellow citizens in order really to organize our strength and live or die for the things in which we believe.” She was indeed very sure what the Declaration and subsequent founding documents — the Constitution, Bill of Rights, and additional amendments — represented to her. To meet 20th century domestic and foreign challenges, she was determined to go beyond parchment parameters set by white, male aristocrats (including slave owners). 

Mrs. Roosevelt highlighted — as did her husband, President Franklin Roosevelt, in his “Four Freedoms” speech that same year — freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. She specified, “I want the right to work, and I want that opportunity to be extended to all my fellow citizens. I want them to have an equal opportunity for educational development, for health and for recreation, which is all part of the building of a human being capable of coping with the modern world.”

Thus, Mrs. Roosevelt, an unwavering civil libertarian and evolving proponent of equality for minorities and women, perpetuated another American tradition: applying the revolutionary spirit of 1776 to reinvent our regime “when … the course of human events” calls for it. The colonies had to separate from Great Britain’s despotism and tyranny because the mother country violated “self-evident truths that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Governments, “deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,” should secure these rights, and, when they destroy them, must be altered or abolished, according to the Declaration’s signatories.

The document that we celebrate on July 4 established liberty, equality, consent of the governed, and independence from tyranny as foundational principles. So fearful were the Founders of centralized power that they created our first “confederacy,” with states paramount in the governing structure. That experiment failed, as did the second (southern) version of it almost a century later. A strong national government not only protects us from foreign domination but is necessary to “establish justice, insure [sic] domestic tranquility … and promote the general welfare,” so the Constitution’s preamble proclaims. To prevent a potent federal government from encroaching on basic liberties, the Framers added the Bill of Rights, and the Supreme Court gradually applied these guarantees against violations by the states. 

It took the pains of civil war, however, for the nation to undergo “a new birth of freedom,” as President Lincoln identified at the Gettysburg battlefield in 1863 “the great task remaining before us.” The 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments partially washed the original sin of slavery from our civic soul, but the stain lingers. The 19th Amendment enfranchised women in 1920, but the Equal Rights Amendment remains outside our constitutional cosmos, despite Virginia’s 2020 approval that met the required three-fourths of the states’ votes for ratification, albeit long after the expiration date for approving the ERA had passed. The Supreme Court has expanded marriage and employment rights for LGBTQ individuals, but they recently lost ground when the Department of Health and Human Services removed nondiscrimination protections for them in health care and health insurance. 

In theory, Lincoln’s aspirational “government of the people, by the people, for the people” has never been closer to realization, especially when we consider that the United States is a republic, not a pure democracy. “We, the people” don’t make policies. That’s the role of our elected representatives. Constitutional amendments have expanded the electorate to include virtually everyone 18 years of age or over. Yet voter suppression, or at the very least gross inconvenience, threatens access to the ballot box. Congress passed the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act with the hope of creating Martin Luther King Jr.’s colorblind society. The federal judiciary ordered public education’s integration and applied criminal rights guarantees against the states. 

Recent events, however, have revealed how far we are from the 14th Amendment’s mandated “equal protection of the laws,” and women and minorities still experience inequities in employment, education and health care.

On July 4, 1945, with the Allies victorious against Hitler’s and Mussolini’s fascist dictatorships, and the Japanese Empire nearly vanquished in the Pacific, Mrs. Roosevelt’s column described her wish for the post-war world. “What we remember most on the Fourth of July and what, I think, will impress itself most on the peoples of other nations as they read our Declaration of Independence,” she wrote, “is that our concern was with human rights. In the last few years all over the world this question of human rights has been increasingly of importance to the people. [W]e will find a very great development in the awareness of the people that their government belongs to them and is designed to furnish them with ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.’” Three years later she would lead the effort to draft and pass the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights. 

If she could reappear on this Independence Day, the former First Lady almost certainly would decry current authoritarian regimes across the globe and their attempts to violate our republic’s independence. She also would demand that the United States reimagine, and truly achieve, liberty and equality for all 21st century Americans.

Barbara A. Perry (@BarbaraPerryUVA) is Presidential Studies director and Gerald L. Baliles Professor at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center. Hear her podcast interview on Eleanor Roosevelt.

Tags Declaration of Independence Eleanor Roosevelt Equal Protection Clause Political unrest

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