By the mid-1700s, our nation’s founding fathers had developed a strong distaste for the wealthy, monarchical class of their former homelands in Europe. The everyday thoughts and actions of the privileged class had become as a yoke around the necks of common man. The heads of Europe were busy making their kingdoms great while enriching themselves and their privileged fellow monarchs. At issue was the size and power of European kingdoms. The new world colonies represented to them little beyond profit, regardless of the cost in human lives or suffering. Colonial cries for greater voice and representation in their own affairs fell upon deaf ears of King and Parliament. Both were truly astounded when subjects of the realm sought redress and ultimately separation.
John Adams once stated that "Power always thinks it has a great soul and vast views beyond the comprehension of the weak; and that it is doing God's service when it is violating all his laws." Thomas Paine was even more to the point in the "Rights of Man" (1791) as he railed against the hereditary monarchical system that he viewed as "...government through the medium of passions and accidents...and which reverses the wholesome order of nature...[by placing the]...conceits of [inexperienced privilege] over wisdom and experience". The cause celebre of the day was the issue of "rights". Which would be more important, those rights granted by king and Parliament based upon "trickle-down" associations of privilege or more egalitarian, inalienable rights shared by all men that had recently come into philosophical vogue on the pens of Voltaire, Montesquieu, Rousseau and Locke? The war fought between 1776 and 1781 established the United States of America but gave only partial answer to that question.
The quelling of the southern states bid for secession by 1865 was seen by intellectuals in Europe, such as Edouard de Laboulaye, as statement of proof that the American political experiment viewed in the old world as “the common law of free peoples” would survive; hence, following the passage of the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1865, Laboulaye proposed the creation of a statue, to be given by the people of France to the people of the United States to honor America’s conquest of sectionalism and racial divisiveness and its faithful protection of the inalienable rights and freedoms of all peoples. Created by, Auguste Bartholdi, the statue, now known as “Liberty Enlightening the World”, was placed on a pedestal in New York Harbor and formally dedicated in 1886. At the base of the statue is a plaque on which can be found a poem written by the American born daughter of Jewish immigrants to the United States, Emma Lazarus, the inspiring last three lines that read:"Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries sheWith silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"Unfortunately, what are less known are the first two lines that declare:“Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,With conquering limbs astride from land to land;Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall standA mighty woman with a torch, whose flameIs the imprisoned lightning, and her nameMother of Exiles.”
Now, one-hundred and thirty years after the dedication of that statue in New York Harbor that proclaimed our “open door” and our position as a champion of oppressed peoples, a symbol of hope to “…masses yearning to be free…”, our national unity is racked by sectionalism, racial divisiveness and fear that those seeking asylum on or shores only mean to do us harm. What is at issue is the seeming conflict between two views of the promise to immigrants contained within our own Declaration of Independence from Great Britain. One view is that strength emanates from wealth and military power that protect laws and that give citizens “rights”; hence, the recent statements concerning immigrants by presidential candidate, now President-elect, Donald J. Trump that imply immigrants have no “rights” and should be immediately deported if within American borders illegally. Per Trump, America has been “weak” and he will “make America great again”. The opposing view is that national strength emanates from the unity of shared talents of all our peoples bound by a unique set of democratic values. At our core, we are all immigrants; hence, “We the people.…” declared our independence to establish a national government that derives its “…just powers from the consent of the governed.”. Ergo, immigrant thought and participation are at the core of our national strength. Once again, the cause celebre deals with the issue of “rights”. Do the people who enter our country “illegally” have any “rights”? Does illegal entry, by itself, constitute "intent to do harm"? Do current immigrants coming to America have the same inalienable rights held by those of our colonists who were British “citizens” as they “mutually pledge[d] to each other [their] lives, [their] fortunes and [their] sacred honor? Is citizenship within America to be solely defined by associations, wealth, power or knowledge; or, can it be defined by the belief in and adherence to the protection of those “inalienable rights” of all mankind? Just what was the message given by our founding fathers?
Recently, newly President-elect Donald J. Trump gave an indication of his rather firm stance regarding the “rights” of immigrants. In a Huffington Post article (Nov. 18, 2016) concerning how President-elect Donald J. Trump’s call for stopping the flow of unwanted immigrants might conflict with the message on the plaque at the base of the Statue of Liberty, the Post quoted Trump as saying: “…you have this frumpy old woman standing outside our country and telling people to come here and stay as long as you want.” When the reporter quoted lines from the Emma Lazarus poem, Trump’s reaction was “Is that right? Really? Your tired? Your poor? Your wretched refuse? Homeless? So, that’s how they got here? When Europe sends their people, they’re not sending the best. Who needs these people?”
As a citizen of the United States and a student of history, I feel that we are in for at least four years of opportunities to further define and realize our national commitment to the protection of those “inalienable rights” sought by our founding fathers. I do hope we can get it right this time around for, if not, possibly we will see the beginning of the end of our unique and wonderful experiment in democracy. As our second President, John Adams, once stated: “Democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts and murders itself. There was never a democracy that did not commit suicide.” (letter to John Taylor, 1814).