September 17 is both Constitution Day and Citizenship Day. It’s usually overlooked, but it’s what we are all about. Before going ashore near present-day Salem, Mass., in 1630, John Winthrop gave a sermon urging his followers to always conduct themselves as if the entire world were watching their “city on a hill.” Ever since then, America and Americans have been a work in progress. We like to think that being a U.S. citizen means that everyone has guaranteed equal rights like voting and employment, but that’s rarely been true. Those rights have been hard fought for, have taken a long time, and are constantly being challenged to have them taken away again. Here are a few historic sites that I encourage your visiting. Each of them represents our continuing evolution as a nation. Each of them helps to answer the questions asked by Paul Gauguin in his famous painting Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?
- Independence Hall in Independence National Historic Park, Philadelphia, PA
This is where the 2nd Continental Congress voted in 1776 for Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence. It proclaimed “that all men are created equal” and they possess unalienable rights that include “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Of course, this was understood to refer to only white males who owned property. Our Founding Fathers met here in 1787 and put together a bundle of compromises known as the Constitution of the United States. One of our two major political parties today considers “compromise” to be a dirty word, but a democratic-republic can’t exist without it.
The Preamble explains the purposes of our government. Everyone agrees on two of the purposes: “insure domestic tranquility” and “provide for the common defense.” There are four other purposes that many actively oppose or ignore: “to form a more perfect union,” “establish justice,” “promote the general welfare,” and “secure the blessings of liberty for ourselves and our posterity.”
- Jackson Square in New Orleans, LA:
The equestrian statue of Maj. Gen. Andrew Jackson dominates the square and honors the hero of the battle that defeated a supposedly superior British army. A hero of the “common” people, Jackson was also the first U.S. president to be elected by them. Yes, the Electoral College officially elected him in 1828, but voting rights in virtually all states had recently been expanded to include free, white males who did not own a specific amount of property.
Still, not everyone benefitted from Jacksonian Democracy. Although he did nothing to end slavery and was a slaveholder himself, he did refuse to allow the South to secede on his watch. However, he placated his fellow southerners in another way. During his 2 terms, 94 treaties were signed under coercion to extinguish Indian land titles in the states and forced their removal so that whites could take their property.
- The M’Clintock House in Waterloo, NY, in the Women’s Rights National Historic Site:
It was here that Elizabeth Cady Stanton met with other activists and composed the Declaration of Sentiments. They then took it two miles down the road to the Wesleyan Chapel in Seneca Falls where it was voted on in the First Convention for Women’s Rights, 1848. Whereas Jefferson’s Declaration indicted King George III, the women’s rights declaration indicted American society. The demand for the right to vote was only one of many included, and it wasn’t until 1920 that the 19th Amendment finally granted suffrage in all states.
Equal pay for equal work has remained elusive: The Equal Pay Act of 1963 is chock- full of exceptions and qualifications; the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009 at least makes filing a grievance more feasible. The Equal Rights Amendment that would have prohibited gender discrimination was proposed in 1972 but was never ratified. A woman’s right to health care and control over her own body was improved by Roe v. Wade (1973) and Planned Parenthood (founded in 1921 as the American Birth Control League by Margaret Sanger and received federal funding in 1970 in a bipartisan bill signed by Republican Richard Nixon), but congressional Republicans and states with G.O.P. governors and state legislatures continue to attempt to restrict those rights.
- The Armory Fire Engine and Guard House in Harper’s Ferry National Historical Park, WV, VA, and MD:
This became known as John Brown’s Fort when he led the 1859 raid on the federal arsenal to capture weapons to arm a slave rebellion. The slave issue extended into a civil war two years later and ultimately led to African-Americans officially gaining basic citizens’ rights: the 13th Amendment (1865) ended slavery in the U.S.; the 14th Amendment (1868) made anyone born in the U.S. a citizen and prevented any state from depriving any person of life, liberty, or property without due process of law; Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kan. (1954) ruled against segregated and unequal schools; and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibited discrimination in public accommodations and in employment based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.
- The Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, AL:
This is the site of the”Bloody Sunday” attack on March 7, 1965, that led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The 15th Amendment (1870) guaranteed that a citizen’s right to vote could not be denied on account of race or color. Regardless, when Reconstruction ended in 1877, Southern states began enacting Jim Crow laws to segregate the races and deny blacks the right to vote, using devices such as terror, poll taxes, and literacy tests. The Civil Rights Movement of the ‘50s and early ‘60s publicized these injustices. The 24th Amendment (1964) ended the use of the poll tax, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 suspended the use of literacy tests.
Incredibly, in Shelby County v. Holder (2013) the five Republican appointees on U.S. Supreme Court rejected Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which required that states with a history of voter discrimination obtain Justice Department approval before making changes in election laws. Consequently, congressional Republicans are blocking a Voting Rights Amendment, and states with Republican governors and state legislatures eagerly pass voter restriction laws.
Note: Whenever anyone gains rights, those who already had those rights may feel threatened. As women and blacks gained the power of the vote and the ability to compete in the workplace, some white males have feared losing their superior advantage and their freedom to discriminate against whomever they wish. One constant human trait is the need to always have someone else to look down on. Having a black president for two terms, and now a female candidate for president, has been traumatic for some voters. The desire to restore white, male dominance may help explain why the 50-year incremental Southern strategy of the Republican Party has finally descended to the nomination of someone like Donald Trump.
By David Offutt
A version of this essay was published September 17, 2016, in the El Dorado News-Times as a guest column.