Just when you thought Norton had reached a new low in discharging the duties of her position – when she said fellow legislators who opposed her bill to force theaters to use metal detectors on patrons would aid and abet in the killing of children – she suggested that not only children should not consider learning the Declaration of Independence useful but that the document deserved repudiation. HB 1035 by state Rep. Valarie Hodges mandated the teaching of the document in schools.
In her typical inarticulate way, Norton appears to have indicated that because at the signing of the Declaration slavery existed, the bill made an “unfair” request of schoolchildren. Further, she called the Declaration a fraud, prompting Hodges to ask whether Norton believed, using the Declaration’s phrasing, that all men were created equal. She bizarrely mentioned that Dr. Martin Luther King had yet to be born in 1776, and that because many blacks did not get treated equally then, they could not be created equally, seeming to say in order for establishment of equal rights King needed to show up. Thus, the Declaration was a lie unworthy of study.
Where to start with this mess? How about with the purpose and scope of the Declaration: it announced the intent of the then-colonies to separate from England and explained why in the next 27 paragraphs, based upon the idea that human beings possessed unalienable rights being violated by King George III and his politicians. All had the same set of rights; no more, no less.
Originally, the Declaration written by future third Pres. Thomas Jefferson had another paragraph: condemning George for his support of slavery and the slave trade. However, when presented to the Second Continental Congress, southern states’ representatives made clear they would not support the document if it had any content critical about slavery. Thus, Jefferson deleted that passage to secure the confirmation eventually of all but two delegates from all 13 states. The country could not have won freedoms, even if realized in delayed fashion, otherwise.
But just because nearly a century would pass before the United States would try to practice in totality what the Declaration preached in regards to equal rights of all human beings for all regardless of race does not invalidate the sentiment of the document. As Benjamin Franklin later would articulate, discrete parts of the country had to hang together or else all would hang separately. Without a temporary compromise on this issue, not mentioning slavery as a crime, to create unity among all colonies, the United States never would have come to fruition.
And it’s a tribute to the seriousness of the document’s sentiment on this issue that in order to secure equal rights for all regardless of race that a bloody intersectional war occurred almost a century later precisely, primarily among objectives through the assertion of federal government power, to secure universal application of these rights, followed by decades of slow legislative and judicial progress to ensure definitive eventual realization of these rights half a century ago. No majority that did not have a considerable portion of it take seriously the Declaration’s word would have, without resisting by force, submitted to a morally correct minority demanding rights due to it.
Regardless of the lack of a specific passage excoriating slavery, that does not invalidate the prior principle in the Declaration of all men created in equality, regardless of race or, as also later specifically confirmed, of women enjoying the same. Even as for decades government’s deeds did not align always with words, that they eventually would proves the genuineness of the document’s words as a reflection of the American mentality. To disparage the document as not meriting study by American schoolchildren reveals incredible ignorance and misunderstanding.
That America for some time incompletely followed the Declaration’s dictum of equal rights does not diminish the importance of the parchment and its ideas. The principles it espouses remain and makes it in part a valuable document to study not just in American classrooms, but worldwide. Meaning that perhaps a bill ordering legislators rather than students to learn about the document would end up doing a greater service if it could educate the ignoramuses in the Legislature like Norton.