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America and democracy are still a work in progress


(July 8, 2013) — One hundred and fifty years ago, 100,000 soldiers clashed on the small hillocks of Gettysburg, Pa., leaving 60,000 casualties, undying memorials to hand-to-hand battles on Little Round Top, Cemetery Hill, the Peach Orchard, and the angle, and creating a new destiny for America.

We needed that new destiny. Our country was born with the declaration that “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.”

But the founders also wrote the Constitution to protect the institution of slavery, continue the enslavement of millions of Americans, and enable the enslavement of millions more.  And it wasn’t just the southerners who signed onto this warrant for slavery.  Northern leaders did so as well.    As a result, slavery did not fade away.  It was embedded into the economics, politics, and culture of the United States.  It resulted in the enslavement of fully one-eighth of all Americans.

It is impossible to know what might have happened if the Confederate Army had prevailed at Gettysburg.  But if the Confederates had succeeded in breaking the Union into two, slavery would have been sustained and deepened in the South, and perhaps kept a toe-hold in the North, as well as enabling the continued and accelerated segregation of black Americans in third-class or second-class status.

The Union and the Confederates fought the Civil War for almost another two years after Gettysburg.  It ground on.  And as it did, the war turned from one of saving the union to one of abolition, of freeing slaves, of ending slavery.  That was enabled in large part because the Union Army needed black soldiers.  The Army opened up its ranks to 200,000 blacks.  From being enslaved to fighting for your own freedom created a powerful impulse for a new America.

It enabled President Lincoln to state in his second inaugural address:  “Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said, ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether’.”

This rebirth of America is a not a straight pathway.  Following the Civil War, Congress passed three amendments to the Constitution, abolishing slavery and giving the right to vote to all men, regardless of race.  But then we went backwards with a century of Jim Crow, the Ku Klux Klan, lynching, white supremacy and segregation.  The brave known and unknown pioneers of the modern Civil Rights Movement hammered down these barriers to democracy.  But we don’t shed ourselves of that history and those prejudices solely with the passing of laws.  We don’t shed ourselves of those prejudices over a year, or even a decade.  It takes much more time.  We are still working on that.

We can progress. Consider women finally getting the vote in 1920. Consider the status of women now, compared to 40 years ago. Consider the gay liberation movement. Twenty five years ago, gay people were persecuted. They had to hide in the closet because of the fear of being seen as who they were. Gay people were expelled from the military, legally discriminated against in marriage, employment, and social benefits. That is all literally past history now. This nation, as Lincoln hoped, has taken a big step toward “a new birth of freedom.”

We have many steps to go, to insure that “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

One hundred and fifty years ago, the soldiers of the Union reclaimed that government. A lot of us take our democracy for granted. We shouldn’t. It requires our own contributions along the pathway toward justice. It’s our work as Americans to build that democracy, day in and day out. That was a good thing to celebrate on the Fourth of July.

John Burbank is the executive director and founder of the Economic Opportunity Institute in Seattle. He can be reached at

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