“We (Americans) see democracy through rose-colored glasses.”
— Martha Raddatz, ABC News
The broadcast was Independence Day week, the event was the growing confusion and violence over who would rule Egypt — one of Earth’s oldest civilizations — playing out against the backdrop of America’s pomp and celebration of itself, one of the youngest; of our own resolution, that is, of who would rule us.
Probably few of us thought deeply about any of it.
As we saluted our troops, hoisted our banners and launched our pyrotechnic displays, did we pause to wonder why the key words of our founding purpose, “Rights to Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” leave out anything about a right to private property?
In 1776, we warned the British Crown over its loathsome taxes, its refusal to us of representation, its own character of a political tyranny over us. But nowhere do we get mad because we do not have a right to own our homes, fields, horses and shops.
Now, why was that?
We have to look to our next-generation founding document, the Constitution, for an answer. That document made it clear that as a new nation we did very much claim private property as a right — including the property of slaves. The Declaration had sort of skipped over the embarrassing question of their status on the list of liberties, so the Constitution put them down as our belongings. All three-fifths of each one.
Both documents were loaded, lethal weapons pointed straight at us, in terms of rights we pledged to respect. It would take until 1861 for those triggers to be pulled, by us and against us, depriving of life at least 620,000 Americans.
Where in all of this was democracy, the same question so evident in news coverage of the carnage and rage in Tahrir Square? Assumed, not stipulated, we’d have to answer. Not even for other Americans: the Constitution gave the vote to absolutely no women. Assumed just as it was last year in Egypt, where “election” was seen as the magic pathway to independence as well as democracy — and apparently will be again this summer, and has been in Libya, Iran, Iraq, Yemen, Tunisia and Syria so recently.
Our private secret is that America did not even begin to become a democracy until just after another event we commemorated this week, the Battle of Gettysburg. By Abraham Lincoln in 1863, rectifying both the Declaration and the Constitution in the 272 words of the Gettysburg Address.
“We here highly resolve,” he said over the scalded acres of that battleground, “that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
Whether those people be black, white or any other color.
“Lincoln,” wrote scholar Garry Wills of that day, “not only presented the Declaration ... in a new light, as a matter of founding law, but put its central proposition, equality, in a newly favored position as a principle of the Constitution (itself).”
The private property of human beings, as a concept that cost us so much agony, was disavowed, for all of us, forever, by the 50,000 Americans who left their blood and their souls on the Gettysburg fields.
Not the end of all our conflicts over race and rights, but distinctly the end of the debate.
The Egyptians, of course, have left us the pyramids. Can they today attain for themselves so much more vital a foundation, a structure, a perfection, that of their first democracy in five thousand years? I’m not sure; they’re not sure. Probably not in a season, or in a year or two years.
But in watching them, we had better not ever forget the treasures our sacrifices, mistakes, tragedies and all, have won for ourselves.
A pistol shot in the night, a refusal to allocate well-being equally, a closing of the Golden Door; the loss of American democracy is as close as each. Teach your children what John Kennedy said about “eternal vigilance.”
“My nation’s struggle toward justice has not been easy,” remarked a more recent American President, George Bush the younger.
“And it is not over.”
Robert L. Cutts is a retired career journalist who spent 12 years with the daily Stars and Stripes and a year and a half as a Vietnam correspondent, and was an adjunct journalism instructor at Western Nevada College.