Reports by government commissions aren’t generally known for their insight into basic questions about the human condition, nor can they typically be read for pleasure. The report of the State Department’s Commission on Unalienable Rights, in circulation as of last week, is perhaps the exception that proves the rule: a lively and serious inquiry into the basic ideas that animated the founding of the United States and provided impetus to the global pursuit of human rights.
Secretary of State Michael Pompeo chartered his commission well before the tough six months America has just been going through, from pandemic to lockdown to protests, some of them violent. Yet current conditions make its message all the more timely.
Demonstrators demand justice and rail against past and present injustice. And whether they are aware of it historically or not, they mostly rely on claims introduced into the political world in the American Declaration of Independence. George Floyd had a right not to be slain by a police officer. Government is supposed to protect people’s lives and liberty. They should govern themselves as equals and be free to pursue happiness as they see it, without fear of capricious force under color of law.
Declaring independence, gradually
“Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” that is: Before the Declaration, ideas were brewing along the lines of the “unalienable rights” of all human beings, but the political world was the sport of kings and barons, chieftains and the strong. To most of them, the idea that government should be “of the people, by the people and for the people,” as Lincoln described it 87 years later, had never occurred. Yet the idea of these rights was so powerful and so liberating that it became not only a global beacon against oppression, but also the means by which Americans began to free themselves from the constraints of the times in which it arose.
That’s because in saying “all men are created equal,” Jefferson and the other signers of the Declaration of Independence both meant it and did not mean it. Clearly, they didn’t mean “all men and women are created equal,” a formulation that would come to the fore with the Declaration of Sentiments drafted by Elizabeth Cady Stanton at the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848. Nor did it apply to men, women and children who were slaves, including of some of the very signers. Nor did they mean it with regard to Native Americans being driven from their ancestral lands.
Nor did the all the abolitionists and early women’s rights advocates themselves necessarily believe in universal human equality. Nevertheless, those five words formed the basis of 244 years’ worth — and counting — of demands for equality in the United States and beyond our own national borders.
The work our founders began isn’t over
The Founders did not finish the job of political equality with the Declaration and the Constitution, nor did Lincoln with the Civil War and Emancipation Proclamation, nor did Susan B. Anthony when she illegally cast a ballot in the 1872 presidential election, nor the Supreme Court in 1954 in Brown v. Board of Education by reversing its previous holding and declaring that the “separate but equal” justification for segregation was not equality.
But the Founders did start the project of political equality by risking their necks on independence in the name of those five words. And the others mentioned here, and many more, continued the project against resistance, by relying on a history tracing back continuously and directly to “all men are created equal” as they demanded justice.
This is a story the Commission on Unalienable Rights tells with clarity and erudition. Likewise compelling is its account of the resonance of the principles of the American founding in the United Nation’s 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the little-remembered context in which other countries drew on their own national traditions in pursuit of the universal rights they delineated in UDHR.
The American story is woefully incomplete without an account of the injustice perpetrated here and the suffering it has caused. But it is also woefully incomplete in the absence of an account of how ideas about unalienable rights articulated at the time of the founding became an engine driving the pursuit of justice here and throughout the world.
Read in USA Today