Your forefathers gave me life more than 240 years ago. When most of them first came to this land, many were in search of a new life, free from religious persecution, free from economic oppression, and free from a system of governance based largely upon one’s circumstances of birth and social status, not upon one’s merit or character. These were the seeds of discontent that fertilized a revolutionary dream and spurred a war against all odds for the right to self-determination. Without these hardships, without these sacrifices, I would not exist.
Even in my infancy, I was proud to be America, your America. I was full of hope, and yet I understood many of your forefathers were flawed men burdened by life’s clay on their feet. I winced at the cruel irony when Patrick Henry, a slave owner, uttered the famous expression, “Give me liberty or give me death,” in the lead-up to the Revolutionary War. I whispered to him, “The slaves feel no differently,” but he did not listen. He did not care.
I winced again when I looked over Thomas Jefferson’s shoulder as he drafted the words, “all men are created equal,” and over James Madison’s shoulder while he drafted the Bill of Rights. I knew, as slave owners, that both meant for their words to apply to white males only. Tears welled up in my eyes. Few of your forefathers considered the plight of blacks, women, or Native Americans, not even the most enlightened for their time.
Nonetheless, I smiled broadly to myself at the aspirational spirit of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Amid the extreme political division and rancor of the day, compromise and agreement seemed unlikely, but country ultimately prevailed over politics and self-interest. I had faith that all their words would matter, eventually.
No two humans are truly created equal. Each is unique. But my manifest destiny, from the very beginning, was that all my children would, someday, be equal under the law to exercise their inalienable rights and to succeed, or not, based on merit.
These are the words that matter to me. They are my words, my moral DNA, my sacred promises to all of you. They matter, and because they do, I matter.
A House Divided
My journey has been painfully divisive. Even today, many of my promises remain only partially fulfilled, especially for my historically disenfranchised children. I grew impatient at times, and continue to be impatient, because I know who I am supposed to be, who I can be. I take pride in being a beacon of hope for the world, but I am to be measured against my ideals, not against the failings or challenges faced by other countries. My promises are absolutes, a minimum standard of human dignity. I refuse to grade myself on the curve.
When your forefathers fought to save my life from British colonial rule yet again in 1812, the battle was not over aspirational ideals or the basic rights of all human beings. They fought for my survival and to protect the rights of the privileged, not the powerless. All my words did not yet matter.
Even Frances Scott Key’s patriotism blinded him to his hypocrisy. When he wrote my national anthem in 1814 during the bombardment of Fort McHenry, I, too, was inspired by his passion for my survival. I urged him to pen but one verse, the first verse only. But his indifference to the suffering of the slaves caused him, in the seldom sung third verse, to denigrate those slaves who took up arms alongside the British in exchange for the promise of freedom. “How dare they!” he exclaimed, to justify his tone deaf words:
I had faith that all their words would matter, eventually.
And where is that band who so vauntingly swore, That the havoc of war and the battle’s confusion A home and a Country shall leave us no more? Their blood has wash’d out their foul footstep’s pollution. No refuge could save the hireling and slave From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave, And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.
—Star-Spangled Banner (third verse), Francis Scott Key, September 1814
I bit my tongue. “How dare he,” I thought, for I understood what he did not. The slaves were not disloyal to me or my core values. I was not offended. They were simply fighting for the right to share in my promises of freedom.
My future was perhaps at its greatest risk during the war to preserve the potential of my soul, the Civil War. The torch of my promise that lay neglected and fallow on the ground was taken firmly in hand by Abraham Lincoln, and brave like-minded supporters. When he looked in the mirror, he didn’t see white men. Instead, he saw human suffering and injustice. More importantly, he appreciated what Henry, Jefferson, Madison and others of their time did not, namely, that without freedom and equality under the law for all my children, for all his children, my words would never matter.
With the outcome of the war uncertain, I found comfort in re-reading his Gettysburg address in moments of self-doubt. He understood me.
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that [the] nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate—we can not consecrate—we can not hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
—The Gettysburg Address, Abraham Lincoln, November 1863
In the decades that passed, my hope for my future was severely tested by the deep wounds caused by the Reconstruction era, the separate but equal doctrine, Jim Crow laws, misogyny, and all forms of discrimination based on status, not merit. I was not proud of myself. All my words had yet to matter.
The 13th Amendment may have freed all slaves, but its passage proved that mankind cannot legislate hearts and minds. Decade after decade, I cried for blacks. I cried for women. I cried for Native Americans. I cried for the many immigrants from around the world who came to my bosom believing in Statue of Liberty’s promise of a better future but who suffered the indignity of unequal treatment and second-class status. When Lady Liberty’s outstretched arm grew tired and the light of her lamp waned, I encouraged her—”have faith,” I said, “because I believe in your words: ‘Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free…’ All your words matter, too.”
The 13th Amendment may have freed all slaves, but its passage proved that mankind cannot legislate hearts and minds.
Throughout my existence, I have inspired many, and sadly, I have failed, too, particularly the powerless and voiceless. Standing in public, with hand over heart, the refrain “with liberty and justice for all” must be difficult words to pledge for those whose ancestors were not treated justly or who continue to be treated unjustly. Why should they, and their children, suffer for generations while others already receive the benefit of my aspirational ideals? Don’t all my children have but one life?
The pace of social progress frustrates me. If only the clay of the worst of human nature was not so heavy, my light would shine even brighter.
Please, Let Me Be Me
Today, I am proud that the width of the cracks in my moral foundation are not what they were—but some remain nonetheless, and I worry. The extreme polarization caused by the “us versus them, win at any cost” mentality of politics, and the public debate over the limits of free speech, freedom of religion, the right to bear arms, and racial injustice, has become unhealthy. The divisiveness pits liberal against conservative, whites against people of color, privileged against poor—they are tribal-like wedges being pounded into my moral fault line, which, until recently, were gradually narrowing with time. I fear for myself. Decades of social progress and my moral authority are potentially at risk. The unthinkable is now thinkable. Could my children take me backwards?
My confidence unshaken, my answer is “no, I refuse. We have come too far, together.” The price of social progress has been high, the sacrifices in blood and treasure, many. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream is the very dream that I dreamt more than two hundred years ago upon reading my sacred promises to all of you. I will not go backwards. I am not perfect. I know that I have work to do, that we have work to do, together, for me to truly become who I promised you that I would be.
One of my favorite inspirational sons, President Kennedy, famously challenged more than fifty-five years ago: “Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.” His words rang true then, and perhaps even more so now. You have a right, however, to expect me, your country—the federal, state and local governments, law enforcement, and the legal system—to be blind to race, gender, faith, sexual orientation, and financial status. If you can’t expect this of me, how can I ask it of you? Hold me accountable. This fight must continue until the cracks in my moral foundation are no longer. My original promises are worthy of the fight.
In return, when asking what you can do for me, I simply ask for your respect and empathy—not for me, but for each other. Your forefathers created me, perhaps the ultimate experiment in self-determination and democracy, despite deep disagreements and even disdain for each other. Jefferson and Adams were sworn enemies until their later years. When the time to vote came, however, they put country first over power or party. Ultimately, they checked their divisiveness at the door of Independence Hall and came together for the sake of a higher ideal: me.
The time has come to be more like your forefathers in dealing with disparate viewpoints. Punching down or belittling others is unbecoming of Americans. Labels—like liberal or conservative, or pro-choice or pro-life—are an unhealthy trap, mere convenient boxes into which everyone is indiscriminately sorted and then discarded or marginalized when politically expedient. Divisive words matter. They destroy trust; they discourage cooperation. I would not have been born if your forefathers acted then as your political leaders do today.
No one fits neatly in one box. Reasonable minds will differ on important issues of the day. They always have, they always will. When they do, disrespectful slurs are counterproductive. Leaders who speak in absolutes, such as “Everyone agrees with me, you know it and I know it,” are essentially saying that anyone who disagrees is ignorant or “low IQ.” The arrogance is not only demeaning, but it is the language of exclusion rather than inclusion. Taken literally, depending on the issue and the person speaking, half of America’s population is clearly and irrefutably wrong at any given time. Ask yourself, “How can that possibly be?” The answer is that each side’s argument likely has varying degrees of merit. And yet, too often the opposing view is dismissed today with a sound bite that appeals to emotion, not analysis.
Instead of denigrating or labeling, I ask that your political leaders compete for the right to lead the country—honorably, humbly, fairly, and without the corruptive influence of the need to retain or gain power. Gerrymandering is not competing fairly. Restricting access to voting, in any form, is not competing fairly. Changing long-established Senate rules to delay or push through judicial nominations is not competing fairly. Using misleading facts or fear-mongering is not competing fairly. To the contrary, all of these “thumbs on the scale” reflect a deep-seated fear of competing, head-to-head, based on the legitimate pros and cons of policy and ideas.
Winning, especially at the expense of honor and fairness, should not be confused with leadership or legitimacy. Nor should a simple majority be mistaken for a mandate to disrespect the sincerely held beliefs and values of half of my children. Let the best ideas and solutions be the winners regardless of party affiliation. I am not one political party or the other. I am an ideal, and a set of sacred promises that cannot be achieved through divisiveness. Nothing in life is stronger divided. As a country, I have gone from melting pot to the pot calling the kettle black. The blatant and not-so-blatant insults must stop if the social divisiveness and political gridlock is to cease.
The present-day answer to President Kennedy’s challenge does not require great sacrifice. You don’t need to volunteer for the Peace Corps or to enter the armed forces. The answer is simpler—inform yourself, engage with others, avoid offensive dogmatic rhetoric, listen, acknowledge the merits in opposing views, seek common ground through civil discourse, and respect well supported opinions when you can’t. Few issues in life are simple. Few answers in life are absolute. No one person, no one party, has the right answer on every issue. More often than not, there is no perfectly “right” answer.
And finally, I ask that you think about others and what is best for the country, not just what is best for yourselves, individually, when making decisions that affect my future. As your nation, I struggle to fulfill my original promises in the face of racism, bigotry, and misogyny. Help me be me. Your forefathers and family elders sacrificed parts of themselves for a better life for you, and for America. Pay it backward by paying it forward. Show gratitude; be willing to sacrifice for the greater good of all.
Each of my children must step into the shoes of the other. If you don’t, if you stand only in your own shoes, my sacred promises may never be fulfilled. Selfishness does not bend the arc of the moral universe toward justice.