Shelter Island Reporter Editorial: A template for America

As the country celebrates the Fourth of July today, we should recall 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 lofty 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 on July 4, 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, people with disabilities, gays, lesbians and transgender people.

None of this country’s greatest achievements have come easily. Freedom has to be fought for by every generation if it is to be maintained and kept strong.

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 such as Sojourner Truth, who was born into slavery in New York and later gave hope to so many as a preacher. 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 long before the term “feminism” arose. A notable name in the gay rights movement is Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man to hold public office in the U.S., and who was assassinated.

The fight for equal rights and opportunity continues in all these movements, here and elsewhere.

Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy has written: “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 ’76 is not only stupid but dangerous. Many of them held their fellow human beings in slavery, which is, as President Obama elegantly put it, “America’s original sin.”

But their genius was, as Justice Kennedy said, to create a template to enshrine American rights in the future.

Happy Independence Day.