Friday, May 25, 2018

1776: Reality, the Principal, and the Principle

The Associated Press reported on an incident in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, New Jersey principal apologizes for 'insensitive' prom ticket language:

The principal of a New Jersey high school has apologized for what he called "insensitive" language on tickets for the upcoming senior prom.

The Courier Post reported the Cherry Hill High School East senior prom tickets urged students to "party like it's 1776" during the event at Philadelphia's National Constitution Center.

Principal Dennis Perry said in a letter to the community posted on his Twitter account Friday that some people were offended, and he wanted to apologize "for the hurt feelings this reference caused for members of our school family."

"It was insensitive and irresponsible not to appreciate that not all communities can celebrate what life was like in 1776," Perry said.

The Principal, Dennis Perry, was lauded for handling the situation well. Perry pledged, in the future, "to ensure that a diverse group of people view all information before it is distributed from the school" and thanked “members of our school community for their caring and thoughtful conversation while discussing this sensitive issue.”

I’m not a member of the Cherry Hill school community. But I’d like to contribute my thoughts to the conversation.

It’s true that, as Principal Perry acknowledged, life was not very good for all Americans, most obviously those blacks who were enslaved.

But something else happened in 1776—the signing of the most anti-oppression document ever written, The Declaration of Independence. For the first time in history, it was declared that every individual is sovereign and possessing of unalienable rights to his own life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness—and that the government’s job is to protect those rights equally and at all times, for all men, regardless of race, or gender, or creed, or national origin, or family ties, or wealth, or sexual orientation, or any other group affiliation.

In practice, these principles were obviously not applied to all individuals in 1776. As Presidential candidate Barack Obama would say in a 2008 speech in front of the Pennsylvania State House in Philadelphia:

Two hundred and twenty one years ago, in a hall that still stands across the street, a group of men gathered and . . . launched America’s improbable experiment in democracy. Farmers and scholars; statesmen and patriots who had traveled across an ocean to escape tyranny and persecution finally made real their declaration of independence [sic] at a Philadelphia convention that lasted through the spring of 1787.

Obama was, of course, referring to the Declaration of Independence and the completion of the United states Constitution. He observed that the document was unfinished, stained by the compromise that allowed the slave trade to continue for 20 more years, and which would “leave any final resolution to future generations.” “Of course,” Obama observed:

the answer to the slavery question was already embedded within our Constitution — a Constitution that had at is very core the ideal of equal citizenship under the law; a Constitution that promised its people liberty, and justice, and a union that could be and should be perfected over time.

And yet words on a parchment would not be enough to deliver slaves from bondage, or provide men and women of every color and creed their full rights and obligations as citizens of the United States. What would be needed were Americans in successive generations who were willing to do their part - through protests and struggle, on the streets and in the courts, through a civil war and civil disobedience and always at great risk - to narrow that gap between the promise of our ideals and the reality of their time.

Although I have a deep disagreement with Obama on many issues, including his philosophical understandings of “equality” and “justice,” the basic thrust of what he said then is true. Americans didn’t always live up to its ideals. Blacks, women, American Indians, gays, and others all had to wait for those ideals of equality to catch up to them. But as Obama clearly implies, it’s not American ideals that are at fault. It is the failure to fully apply them to all people that is.

In a sense, we can say there are two 1776s--the ideal and the reality. A statement of ideals is a crucial starting point, as ideas drive human history. But it’s a hard fight to bring them to reality. There is a reason why freedom fighters from Frederick Douglass to Abraham Lincoln to Martin Luther king to Harvey Milk and many, many others have rooted their struggles to close the gap between the ideals and reality in the principles of the Declaration of Independence. The ideals of political equality and equal protection of every individual’s rights to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness under the law has been the philosophic fuel for closing the gap throughout American history. 1776 didn’t give us equal freedom and justice for all that was promised. But it did give us the means for achieving it. That’s the 1776 we can all celebrate.

Related Reading:

July 4, 1776: Words that Will Never Be Erased

When the Constitution Was 'At War With Itself,' Frederick Douglass Fought on the Side of Freedom—Damon Root

The Colorblind Constitution: Frederick Douglass on Race and America’s Founding—Hannah Sternberg

Lincoln and Race—Alexander V. Marriott

Remembering Martin Luther King Jr. For His Moral Ideals Rather Than His Politics

On This Constitution Day, Remember the Declaration of Independence

We Need to Reassert the Declaration Before We 'Rewrite the Constitution'

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