Deep divisions and endless hostility – especially around the controversial topics of race and discrimination – threaten to tear our nation apart.
Such serious matters must be discussed and resolved. But they shouldn’t make us forget the one thing that has always united Americans of varied ethnicities, races, and religions as one people.
Very simply, it is the vision in our Declaration of Independence: “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.” “All men” means each and every human being. Americans of every race and religion are born equal and therefore possess equal rights.
The Declaration says that we all have the right to our life and the right to our liberty. But it does not say we have a right to happiness. It says we have the right to “the pursuit of Happiness.”
And that is the root of today’s conflicts.
Ours is a meritocratic society where success and happiness are up to us. Equal outcomes are not guaranteed. But equal opportunity is a founding principle – one we need to understand and carry forward.
The vision of the Declaration is that every American should have the same opportunities for success. Of course, we know that hasn’t always been the case for everyone.
Some Americans have been denied a fair place at the starting line of life or have not received fair play along the way. Americans of African descent were enslaved and, even after being emancipated, they continued to face discrimination through Jim Crow laws and other racial barriers. Chinese and Irish Catholic immigrants faced religious and ethnic discrimination in the mid- nineteenth century. Waves of Jews, Italians, and other immigrants encountered similar kinds of bigotry.
Our history has been about our long struggle to overcome discrimination of all kinds and to achieve the Declaration’s vision of equality. Although it has not come as fast as it should, we have made significant progress. Black people, Chinese, Catholics, and Jews have pushed back against discriminatory practices and attitudes, with many having taken advantage of all the opportunities our free society has to offer to advance themselves.
In fact, because of their hard work, Chinese and other Asian immigrants today have become overrepresented at many universities and are now being discriminated against when it comes to entry. This does not live up to the principles of the Declaration.
But just as our country was getting closer to becoming a fair-minded, colorblind society with equal opportunities for all, we have suddenly made a turn back to being a race-obsessed society. It doesn’t have to be this way.
One of the biggest influences on the future success of individuals is the education they receive. And that is where we are being unfair to certain groups – especially to some people of color.
Americans of all races should receive a top-flight education that gives our youth a great start. This includes a solid civics component. Each generation should learn about the Declaration’s vision of equality and our continuing efforts to fulfill it. And they should learn how to be good, productive, and knowledgeable citizens. I suspect that almost every single American would be in full support of that goal.
But even with that said, there is still one more necessary ingredient: the individual initiative needed to take advantage of all the opportunities that are available in a meritocratic society like ours.
After the Civil War when the slaves were finally freed, Frederick Douglass, the famous black abolitionist, writer, and speaker, said it best: “You are in one sense free. But you must not think that freedom means the absence from work. Bear that in mind. I would impress it upon your minds, that if you would be prosperous, you must be industrious.” Douglass emphasized the need for a “persistent and untiring effort” to take advantage of the universal right to pursue happiness and make that mission into a reality for all.
Douglass was speaking to a black audience, but his advice applies just as much to everyone living today. All Americans should be united around having an equal place at the starting line of life and ensuring fair play along the way.
So, yes, let’s discuss and resolve our problems. But let’s never forget that vision from our Declaration that unites us all as a free people.
Jack Miller is the founder and chairman of the Jack Miller Center, a 501(c)(3) organization that promotes the teaching of America’s founding principles and history by supporting professors and programs on campuses nationwide as well as courses for K-12 teachers that help them build engaging lessons for their students.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published by RealClearPublicAffairs on April 7, 2022, and is crossposted here with permission.