Painful Problems of the Past
THERE have been serious problems in making effective the promised freedoms proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Some of these problems have proved very painful and, in the eyes of some historians, have brought a tragic stain on the history of the United States.
One observer claims that during the Bicentennial most Americans are being fed a sugar-coated version of their country’s history. He noted: “It’s just that there are other truths to be told as well.” An honest appraisal of two hundred years of history must include such truths.
One of them has to do with the freedoms proclaimed on July 4, 1776. The Declaration of Independence had said “that all men 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.” The Constitution guaranteed the basic freedoms of speech, assembly, press and religion. Amendment IV also said: “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated.”
These are noble principles. And they have been preserved to a considerable extent for many people. But historians show this has not been so for all.
A Violent Past
For example, the settling of what was to become the United States by European settlers involved a violation of nearly all those fine principles. Those ideals were demanded by the European settlers, but they were denied to those who were on the land long before them.
The ‘right of the people to be secure in their persons and houses and free from search and seizure’ did not apply to the Indians who had been on the land centuries before the settlers. The fact of history is that the Indian populations were largely crushed. Their lands and homes were taken away. The decimated tribes were forced onto reservations. And Indians were not even given the right to vote in all states until 1948.
True, the Indians were regarded as ‘savages.’ They had indeed warred among themselves, with one tribe often conquering another. And they fiercely resisted the white man. But the question may be raised as to whether Americans would not have resisted with their might, just as savagely, if during the Civil War from 1861 to 1865 a foreign power had regarded such ‘intertribal warfare’ between North and South as ‘savage’ and had invaded the United States to ‘civilize’ the land.
Today, some Indian spokesmen are still very bitter. Vernon Bellecourt, a leader of the American Indian Movement, argues that ‘Americans should look at the 200 years of their Government as 200 years of deceit and shame.’ He declared that American Indians should not celebrate the Bicentennial because ‘we have nothing to celebrate . . . ever since white colonists began taking away the sovereign rights and lands of the native Americans.’
Some authorities feel that the violent American past has a bearing on the present. The Denver Post related: “The most serious point, it seems to be, is the question about the nature of American society. Certainly it has included since pioneer days a great deal of violence. The centuries-long ‘war’ against the American Indians was itself a dreadful conditioner. Europeans came as invaders and all too frequently fought their way into possession of other people’s land, destroying other people’s societies. These elements of violence continued.”
There is another chapter that has produced pain and stains during the American past. It has to do with the institution of slavery.
When the early settlers took over Indian lands, they found themselves in possession of vast areas with rich potential. In the southern colonies, the climate and soil were good for the growth of tobacco, rice, sugarcane and cotton.
But who would do all the work on these vast lands? The relatively small population of Europeans was not enough. And the type of work was not very desirable either. What was the answer? Black slaves, kidnapped from Africa.
Many have wondered how a nation founded on the principles that “all men are created equal” and that all had the “unalienable Rights” of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” and freedom from “unreasonable searches and seizures” could have condoned slavery. One of the grievances noted in the Declaration of Independence was the ‘taking of citizens captive and the forcing of them into the King’s service’ by the British. Yet, taking blacks captive and forcing them into slavery was condoned, and by the very individuals who wrote those noble words.
The problem demonstrates how deeply ingrained selfish desires are in all mankind. And one such desire is to make a lot of money, even at the expense of someone else. In the American past, it often proved to be more powerful than the noble principles, just as it so often proves to be today.
Of course, slavery did not begin in 1776. The first black slaves landed about 150 years earlier, in Jamestown. But by the eve of the Declaration of Independence in 1776, blacks numbered about 500,000 out of a population of 2,600,000. Well over 90 percent of the blacks lived in the South.
Thomas Jefferson, who drew up the rough draft of the Declaration of Independence, had spoken out against slavery when he was a young lawyer. But he had slaves himself. Regarding this, Ebony magazine says: “That he could do so while reaping the benefits of slavery was typical of the bright young revolutionaries of the times.” Sources state that Jefferson had over 200 slaves at Monticello, his estate of thousands of acres in Virginia.
Patrick Henry, though speaking of slavery as repugnant, nevertheless said: “I am the owner of slaves of my own purchase!” The answer as to why may be found in his next sentence: “I am drawn along by the general inconvenience of living here without them.”
Two years later, Patrick Henry delivered his famous speech wherein, regarding the coming break with Britain, he declared: “Give me liberty or give me death!” No doubt many black slaves felt similar sentiments.
Ferment over slavery grew. Many people saw its basic injustice in a nation that claimed to champion freedom.
Many Americans, claiming to be followers of Jesus Christ, found it hard to harmonize the perpetual enslavement of fellow humans with Jesus’ famous “Golden Rule,” which said: “All things, therefore, that you want men to do to you, you also must likewise do to them.”—Matt. 7:12.
By the time of the Civil War, which began in 1861, the United States was made up of thirty-four states. Of these, fifteen were slave states. Eleven of them broke off to form the Southern Confederacy; four slave states joined the Northern side.
In 1863 President Abraham Lincoln issued his Emancipation Proclamation. This declared that slaves were considered free in the Confederate states. But slavery in all states was not entirely abolished legally until 1865 when Constitutional Amendment 13 was ratified.
Amendment 15, in 1870, gave blacks the right to vote. But such a right had little meaning for many. For example, some states required a poll tax. This was a tax that was required before a person could vote. Of course, poor blacks, as well as poor whites, often could not afford the tax. Only when Amendment 24 was adopted in 1964 was the poll tax prohibited for national elections. And in 1966 the Supreme Court outlawed such a tax for all elections.
Many states also had given the right to vote only to those persons who could pass a literacy test. Many blacks, and whites too, could not pass such a test. Not until 1970 did the government ban these tests as a requirement for voting.
The injustices committed during the more than 350 years of slavery form a deep stain on American history. To this day the country has not recovered from all the effects of this.
Differing Views of Some Women
A number of women claim that the freedoms proclaimed when the nation was born were, in some areas, long denied to them. These women point to the fact that for nearly a century and a half women did not have the right to vote.
They argue that if, as Lincoln declared, the nation was to have a “government of the people, by the people, for the people,” then that form of democratic rule should allow women to vote. Denying them that would deprive half the population, the “people,” of a right implied by the founding fathers. Eventually, the government agreed, and in 1920 it gave women the right to vote.
In addition, some women say that generally they do not get the same consideration and treatment from employers that men do, nor do they get the same pay for the same work even when they are the sole support for a family. One woman claimed that employment of women is often a case of “last hired, first fired.”
Of course, not all women in the United States agree with those sentiments. Most, however, do appreciate improvements in working conditions that have come as a result of laws designed to protect women from labor abuses and injustices.
Thus the course of freedom in the past two hundred years has been an uneven one. It has meant a high level of freedom for some, and this has been appreciated and cherished. For others there have undeniably been varying degrees of oppression. And while many of the previous injustices have been corrected since then, their bad fruitage still affects the nation.
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The first Europeans peacefully exchanged goods for what they wanted. But soon their growing demands were backed by force
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The fine principles of equality and freedom did not apply to the slaves