We take it as our duty to review history and judge the great figures of the past. Their words and deeds, written and lived in their own times, are judged in ours. The scrutiny of contemporaries is harsh enough, but remove a life from its context and judge it against a modern value system and not even an angel can escape unscathed. A renewed focus on the nation’s Founders has brought renewed criticism. I do not here attempt to justify or condemn the actions of our Founders; I am not fit to judge. Instead, I hope to elucidate a consistency in the American system that stretches from today back to the signing of the Declaration of Independence and beyond. I will set forth a new interpretation of the American Dream and, in doing so, demonstrate that the American Dream is not dead, nor can it be killed.
“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.” These words, written by Thomas Jefferson in 1776, are among the most inspirational to ever flow from any American pen. For many, these words bring feelings of patriotism and great pride. For others, though, these words bring feelings of betrayal and great pain. All men are created equal. All men. What did Jefferson, a slave-holding Virginian, really mean when he wrote that “all men are created equal”? Did he intend to free his slaves, or all slaves in the Colonies? That does not seem to be the case, considering he did not emancipate his slaves even at his death. Was he, then, referring only to white men being created equal? On the one hand, he is a duplicitous hypocrite. On the other, he is an insufferable racist. This is the man whose face is on our currency, whose semblance is seen next to Washington on Mount Rushmore, and whose monument in Washington D.C. dominates the southwest end of the National Mall. How could we?
Indeed, some in modern society, in the face of protests for racial justice, have called for the Jefferson Memorial to be removed. Why should we celebrate and immortalize a man who so clearly does not embody the ideals of our nation? While I will not come to the Memorial’s defence, nor will I attempt to analyze his every word or action, I will present a possible alternative meaning for Jefferson’s seemingly contradictory words in the Declaration. Rather than being hypocritical or racist, they may have been aspirational. The Founders, the signers of the Declaration, speaking through Jefferson, may have been declaring the ideals of the nation they were founding, rather than stating the condition of the nation as it already existed. In July 1776, America was in turmoil. The independence then declared was in jeopardy of being lost within the year. Even at that time, though, the issue of slavery was on the minds of many founders. When the war was won and the states eventually sent delegates to the Constitutional Convention, northern States proposed the end of slavery. Southern States, voiced by Thomas Pinckney, refused to join such a union. The end of the Atlantic slave trade was proposed, and the Southern States again balked. So the Constitution states that the issue of the slave trade could not even be discussed in Congress until 1808. Without this compromise and others (like the Missouri Compromise and the Kansas-Nebraska Act), we would have no Union. There would be no United States and there would be no possibility of an American Dream.
It is easy, on this side of the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement, to condemn the Southern States for their role in perpetuating the institution of slavery. The institution should in no way be justified, but we are not in a position to judge fairly.
The Founders created a foundation upon which we can build a great nation. Under this interpretation, the American Dream can take on a more expansive meaning. Our Dream is more than just the possibility that anyone in any situation can improve their economic situation. We can elevate our dream to mean that any of us, and all of us, can become better. That we can have hope that tomorrow can be better than today, and that sometimes it will be. We can improve ourselves as individuals and as a nation. Economic advancement is part of the dream, but probably not the most important part.
The Founders of our nation set up a system and a culture that encourages improvement. The Constitution itself, recognizing itself as incomplete and potentially flawed, dedicates one of its seven articles to outline the process by which the Constitution itself can be improved over time. We can also see the Dream being lived out in the lives of our Founders. Benjamin Franklin kept a list of virtues, and he daily took an account to track his improvement in these virtues. Washington, having received much less education than his fellow Founders, worked tirelessly to study on his own. Hamilton and Jefferson were both voracious readers with interests that spanned far beyond politics, into topics such as medicine, botany, economics, manufacturing, and clothing design. Lincoln, who I consider a Founder in the second generation, with no education, looked to improve himself throughout his life, progressing from an aggressive, sometimes conniving, unsuccessful local politician, to the inscrutable president who preserved the Union.
The Constitution and the Bill of Rights guarantee freedoms essential to our individual and collective improvement. The right to peaceably assemble, religious freedom, and the freedom of speech, along with the rights to a fair trial, all work together to set up a system that allows us to improve ourselves and look forward with as much hope for our future as we can have pride for our past. These rights are not always completely or universally applied. As a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I know this well. My ancestors were imprisoned, beaten, killed, and driven from state to state, with the knowledge, consent, and sometimes direct order of the government. Even today, ridiculing my religion is considered fair play, even celebrated. In 2012, the Tony for Best Musical went to a musical which openly mocks my faith. Though it makes me a little sad that we, as a people, can still be so prejudiced that we would celebrate a piece of work like that musical, that is clearly intending to be unkind and not in good fun, without batting an eye, I am nevertheless encouraged. Violent religious persecution has decreased dramatically since the time my ancestors lived. I would much rather have someone sing a silly song about how daft I must be than be tarred and feathered while my house is burned. We are, as a people, making progress.
In a similar vein, we have made great progress, as a people and as individuals, toward being accepting and kind to people of all races. We aren’t perfect, but we are, as a whole, improving. We have a long road ahead of us, as recent events have made painfully clear. But we are walking that road. We can look with gratitude at how far we have come, and we can look forward with optimism at how far we have to go. If we have come this far, we can and will keep improving.
This, I believe, is the American Dream. It is not just about earning more money and moving ever higher in the social stratosphere. The American Dream is about becoming better. Finding a better way–a more excellent way–to live, to govern, to be governed, to self-govern. This dream, this relentless pursuit of improvement, is our national character. It is more American than apple pie, more enduring than baseball. It ties us together, to past and present. It moves us forward and makes us great. Eventually.