Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Birth Certificate of the United States

It is one of my priorities (in case no one has noticed) to teach my girls the responsibilities that they have to be good citizens of this country. In the past few years I have taken them to protests, conventions, home gatherings, and of course to the voting booth.

This past Saturday we "started school" as the girls called it. We drove to the State Capital and stood in line to see an original copy of America's birth certificate, the Declaration of Independence. The basic history of our country is familiar to the girls due to Meikina's recent studies in Fifth Grade and our viewing of HBO's miniseries, "John Adams."

As we stood in the two-hour line to get our chance to look at this original (purchased by Normal Lear after being discovered behind a $4 painting), I took the opportunity to try and make this document pertinent to my daughters.

"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."

I explained that the Founding Fathers meant "men" in a literal sense, a point made by Morgan Freeman in a film introduction to the showing. They didn't mean women, or blacks, or Native Americans. They meant white men. But, I explained, since 1776 brave and passionate people -- citizens -- have fought hard, and sometimes died, to broaden the application of the these words to everyone. As Freeman pointed out, the spirit of the Declaration on Independence is broad, but its application has at times been limited.

"That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness."

I explained to my girls that the Founding Fathers were extremely suspicious of any government, that they believed that the power of government belonged firmly in the hands of the citizens, and that it is our duty to constantly monitor and guard against any encroachment by the Government on our rights.

One of the most egregious violations of a citizen's rights in colonial times, I explained, was King George's decision to monitor rebellious colonists by placing British soldiers in their homes. It was the King's way of watching and listening. I asked my girls if they thought it was any different when our own President decides he must monitor the citizens by listening in on our phone conversations, reading our e-mails, or getting information on what books we read at the library. It was this kind of encroachment that the Founding Fathers distrusted, and hoped the citizens would be vigilant against.

"How do we change our government?" I asked. Almost in unison they replied, "By voting." That is very true, I said, but it is not just voting that is important. You must be educated, study the issues, understand a candidates opinions and ideas. "It is not a simple matter of voting for a Democrat or Republican," I stated. "Would you ever vote for a Republican?" Meikina asked. "Of course," I replied. But I went on to explain that my personal philosophies of communal and environmental responsibility, my belief that we are all responsible for our own bodies, and my belief that we as a society have an obligation to the poor differentiated me from most Republicans. "I make my voting decision based on a study of each candidates ideas, not the letter behind their name."

But voting isn't all there is to do. If we feel things are not going right, we must engage in the cause. We can attend meetings, circulate petitions, participate in protests. "Today many people, not understanding our own history, feel it is wrong to protest against the government. But protest is the very foundation of our government."

"That mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed."

We are all generally lazy members of society. We see actions being taken by our leaders which we feel are wrong, but we do little to get involved to make change. The Founding Fathers recognized that. But the Declaration of Independence was a call to arms, a declaration that the colonists had had enough. It was an act of rebellion that put their lives and family at grave risk. I explained that all societies in human history had eventually failed, and most had failed for one reason -- apathy. It is thought that the great Mayan civilization, which we saw remnants of on our recent trip to Belize, simple disintegrated when the religious leaders were thought to no longer represent the majority of Mayans. The people simply walked into the jungle and never came back. "Fight against that from happening with our country by being active members -- voting, protesting, being engaged."

When we finally arrived at the display case holding the Declaration of Independence, there was an information sign that pointed out that John Hancock and his secretary were the only two people to sign the original on July 4, 1776. "Meikina, do you remember why John Hancock's signature is larger than all the rest? Because he wanted the world to know that he was signing this declaration of freedom, that he wanted King George to know that he, John Hancock, was prepared to die for this. He refused to hide behind a small or illegible signature. That is the reason even today we say, 'Put your John Hancock on this letter.'"

I am afraid that my girls might grow up feeling that their father didn't love his country, or was never happy with its government. But on this day, I think I communicated my deep love for the principles that this country is founded on -- individual liberty, collective responsibility, and the responsibility of all of us to be actively engaged in a good cause.