Today marks the 245th anniversary of America’s Declaration of Independence, passed by a rebel legislature in a sweltering Philadelphia courtroom on July 4, 1776. Today, the Declaration is probably recognized best by one of its opening lines: “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.”
The Declaration itself, beyond those famous words about unalienable rights, is mostly a list of grievances with the British king. The Declaration’s drafters complained about lacking political representation, unfair taxes, and being forced to house British troops. Beyond unalienable rights, the document contains little that is quotable. How interesting that a customer service complaint is remembered as a lofty statement of basic human values. But from those basic human principles —that we are all equal and entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness — rose the most enduring democratic experiment in history.
As it was later written in our Constitution, the new nation was established “in order to form a more perfect Union.” Not a perfect Union — ready-made and unassailable. The implication being that the system being established was not —and indeed no system could ever be — inherently perfect, and that its inheritors must always strive to make it better.
Indeed, the signers of the Declaration of Independence were a deeply imperfect lot. 41 of the 56 signers were slave owners. It is doubtful any of them thought women should vote. They certainly wouldn’t have entertained the idea of same-sex marriage. They largely believed the country should be governed — and elected —by wealthy elites. Today, we look back with significant misgiving about their guiding beliefs.
But, despite the founders being a product of the prejudices of the day, they managed to enshrine in our constitution a set of freedoms that formed the foundation of efforts to overcome those very same prejudices years later. Freedoms that embrace fundamental human rights, including the right to make your voice heard, even if critical towards the government. Freedoms that recognize a free and professional press is vital to the functioning of every healthy democracy by ensuring citizens can make informed decisions and hold governmental officials accountable. And freedoms that recognize societies are strengthened, not threatened, by expressions of opinion and dissent. Without these freedoms — and the institutions that uphold them — our march towards a more perfect union would likely have stalled.
And admittedly, this process has, at times, not been pretty or orderly. In the mid-1800s, more than 600,000 Americans lost their lives in a civil war. After slavery was abolished, huge swaths of the country enacted laws designed to politically and economically disenfranchise Black Americans, leaving a bitter legacy that endures to this day. Women only gained the right to vote in 1920. The Voting Rights Act didn’t pass until 1965. Same sex marriage was illegal until 2015. Because we have more work left to do, we push on, striving to get better, even if that means taking a hard look in the mirror.
How fitting, then, that our Independence Day comes on the heels of a month in which we celebrate — and reflect — on the value our diversity and what it means to have democratic values. First, June is Pride Month, an opportunity to show support for the self-affirmation, dignity, and equality of LGBTQI+ persons. As we raised the rainbow flag high above the U.S. Consulate in Mumbai for the first time in history, we remembered that Pride Month commemorates the June 28, 1969, Stonewall Riots, in which New York City’s LGBTQI+ community — led by a Black person — rose up in protest over police raids of gay bars, a watershed moment in the LGBTQI+ rights movement. And on June 19, we celebrated Juneteenth as a federal holiday for the first time in history, commemorating the final and true emancipation of enslaved Black people in the furthest reaches of the Confederacy, who received delayed news of their freedom from slavery two and a half years after the President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863.
This past June marked the 100th anniversary of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, one of the worst single incidents of racial violence in America, in which the prosperous Black neighbourhood of Greenwood in Tulsa, Oklahoma was systematically destroyed by a white mob, murdering hundreds. But June also saw the sentencing of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd, a reminder that we have come a long way, even as we still have far to go towards that perfect union.
On a global scale, June also saw the 76th anniversary of the signing of the UN Charter, a time when the signatories, including the United States, committed “to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, (and) in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small.”
Today, the United States is committed to supporting democratic values, including a free and open civil society and strong rule of law around the world. We believe that our shared commitment to democratic values is the bedrock of the U.S.-India relationship. So, as we march forward together, the world’s oldest and largest democracies, we must continually remind ourselves that we are not flawless, but strive every day to improve, to hold ourselves accountable, and to become more perfect unions.
(The author is the United States Consul General in Mumbai, responsible for America’s relationship with the states of Maharashtra, Gujarat, Goa, Chhattisgarh, and Madhya Pradesh)