I started the draft of this blog post on January 21st, but it has taken me awhile to come back and finish it. The inauguration of Barack Obama had a rather substantial impact on me, and so…

As myriad TV stations, online news sites and newspapers state, January 20, 2009, is a historic day. The United States elected its first African-American president. It has taken us 220 years (from the first election in 1789) to expand the presidential mold to the point where a female and African-American can be serious contenders, but some of the most significant steps in the path to this moment have come from radically reshaping the meaning of the key American ideals expressed in our Declaration of Independence (external link):

“We hold these Truths to be self-evident, 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.”

Our Declaration of Independence is an example of the power of words to create a common vision and mission for a people. Our national ancestors acted to make the dream a reality, but they fought to create the United States of America not only on the battlefields with firearms but also in the minds and hearts of their future citizens and on the world stage. The struggle over who is included and excluded in this vision, in that phrase “all Men,” is ongoing. It has been (and continues to be) disputed in legislatures, in courthouses, in the media and on the streets, especially in the last 150 years.

It has been a long and often painful process that has brought us to where we are today. The Civil War led to the Emancipation Proclamation (1862) and three constitutional amendments (the 13th banning slavery (1865), the 14th extending citizenship to “all persons born or naturalized in the United States” and declaring equal protection under the law for citizens (1868), and the 15th stating that the right to vote will not be denied based on “race, color, or previous condition of servitude”(1870)) which extended “all Men” to include African-American men, an important step in redefining the ideals of our nation. Women’s suffrage fought for nearly a century before the government finally recognized women’s right to vote in the 19th amendment in 1920, another step forward that included women as citizens with those unalienable rights of “all Men.”

The end of the 19th century and the 20th century have seen the transformation continue, in battles over anti-miscegenation laws (prohibiting marriages not only between “whites” and African-Americans but also between “whites” and Asian-Americans), segregation, and inequalities in pay, education and naturalization rights. We, as a country, have sometimes shockingly denied rights and protections to our citizens and to those who have come to our shores seeking a new home. The more than 100,000 Japanese-Americans stripped of their businesses, homes and possessions and interned in 10 concentration camps from 1941 to 1946 while their young men were recruited to fight in World War II are only one example.

We should not forget our country’s history, not even our failures to promote and protect those unalienable human rights claimed in our Declaration of Independence as a self-evident truth. The 21st century will see the struggle for equality to continue in areas like immigration, naturalization, education, anti-discrimination and marriage. We will continue to redefine who we are, who we include and who we exclude. And perhaps in this age of globalization, we will continue to extend our view of unalienable human rights beyond the boundaries of our citizens and our nation.

This inauguration day is a historic moment. But it is only one milestone on a long road, and there are many miles left to go and many bridges left to build.

For a peek at some of our historical documents, visit the Library of Congress online, and the National Archive also has a section dedicated to these documents with interesting commentary.

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