Some 246 years into this American republic, there are cracks being revealed in a democratic structure that the founders had envisioned continuing to evolve and strengthen. An admonition by one of our first First Ladies reveals that the battle for equal rights — and women’s rights — within this republic is 246-years old — and it continues.
In the stifling Philadelphia summer of 1776, the founders of our new and independent nation, all men, were assembled as the Continental Congress in what later became known as Independence Hall. They were there to discuss their grievances against English King George the Third and decide what to do next. The Boston Tea Party, the conflicts of Lexington and Concord, and the Battle of Bunker Hill had already occurred. Ahead of them lay years of conflict.
What they hammered out that summer, elegantly put into words by Thomas Jefferson, become one of the most famous documents in the world, the Declaration of Independence. Even then it was an aspiration, its words not realized, or even understood.
How else can you explain the words, “We hold these truths to be self-evident – that all men are created equal. That they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, among them, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
It should be recognized that when the Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, it was a call for the right to statehood rather than individual liberties, says Stanford historian Jack Rakove. But after the American Revolution people interpreted it as a promise for individual equality embodied by the new nation.
The decision not to deal with the continent’s ugly slavery issue (as well as indentured servants) hung over that 1776 gathering; it was blocked by the southern states and kicked down the road a few decades to be dealt with, then conveniently forgotten, resulting in a civil war.
To vote at that time, you had to be a man, and you had to be a property owner. And over all this, women were considered property too; what they owned, what they earned, their children, their reputations, all owned by their husbands. Even when some property rights were “shared” with women, this mostly meant “white women.”
Consider Abigail Adams’ letter to her husband John Adams (who became our second president) in a letter dated March 31, 1776, urging him and other members of the Continental Congress not to forget about the nation’s women in the fight for independence. The future First Lady wrote in part:
“I long to hear that you have declared an independency. And, by the way, in the new code of laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make, I desire you would remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the husbands. Remember, all men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation.”
Adams could be considered the first American fighter for equal rights for women. Abigail and John Adams ( whose correspondence of more than 1,000 letters written between 1762 and 1801 are in the Massachusetts Historical Society) persists as a model of mutual respect and affection, giving historians a unique perspective on domestic and political life during the revolutionary era. In that era, the women followed their soldiers to war; washing and mending and cooking and dying, some of them even donning men’s clothing to fight, their contributions going unrecognized after the war ended.
But it took 150 years for women to get the right to vote. It took 197 years to have control of our own reproductive rights. Then it took 246 years for the now activist right-wing conservative U.S. Supreme Court to remove women’s constitutional right to their own bodies.
Many say that today’s Supreme Court “originalists” — the 6-3 super majority — appear determined to forget that at our founding, the country, its expectations, and yes, the Constitution created after the Revolutionary War — were considered a work in progress, not a rigid and static document. Nor do they acknowledge that the root word of privacy is the word “privates” (thus outhouses were “privies”). Referencing them in such a document would have been considered the height of indecency, but that doesn’t mean that people weren’t going to need privacy to conduct their personal business.
As documented in Ron Chernow’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Washington A Life”, at the moment of the Declaration of Independence, ideals triumphed over colonial power and colonies became states, but the Continental Congress and the Continental Army were left begging the states for support. That struggle foreshadowed the struggle after the Revolutionary War was over to establish a federal government; leaving unresolved issues that would nearly tear the country apart “four score and seven years” later, with the Battle of Gettysburg this very weekend in 1863.
Added to all the other issues of what is truth and what is a lie (the biggest lie of all — that that 2020 election was stolen — is absolutely false) and who has a right to vote, the issues that have been ripped wide open by the most recent Supreme Court session could represent a battleground for the soul of this nation.
What many leaders and legal experts, as well as we ordinary folks are asking is; will we live up to the ideals represented in that Declaration, or will we succumb to the same vicious, narrow, white supremacist views that nearly tore this nation asunder more than once already?
Featured image: the Constitution of the United States of America. Image courtesy of the National Archive.