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Declaring Independence

I’ve been reading the fabulous Jon Meacham biography of one of our most important founding fathers, and really my favorite one, Thomas Jefferson. I may have read it before, judging from a few scattered notes in the margins, but it is all still quite fascinating to me.

Thomas Jefferson, as hopefully you all remember, wrote the Declaration of Independence -- mostly by himself. He was on a small committee constituted for the purpose of writing a draft of the document, but as he was the youngest and the older guys flattered him (I’m guessing), Jefferson labored away on that first draft mostly alone. It was a wise decision.

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.”

You remember that, right? I’d love to use this space to talk about the parts that were left out from the original draft or the reason why some things were changed, but I will instead focus on how this relates to the need for strong public schools.

Even in early America, only those white men with property were allowed to make decisions in government. The Declaration of Independence didn’t change that aspect, but over the years, who is allowed to pursue their happiness through serving in elected office has expanded greatly -- from adding all white males, to all males, to all people over a certain age -- because different eyes read those words above.

As the expansion of “citizen” continued, so did the need to make sure that these new voters knew for what they were voting. At the very least they needed to know how to read, so communities started building local public schools. They grew along with the elective franchise, giving all people the opportunity to get an education so that they could indeed embody the unalienable rights of which Mr. Jefferson wrote so eloquently.

When I was in Boston earlier this summer, I got to see the place where this sacred American document was first read. I’ve seen an original of it in Washington DC, under several layers of bullet-proof glass and guarded by armed people. Why would we go to the effort to preserve these places if those words weren’t important to us all? Do they still have power to move people?

Through the public school system, every year, in every generation, our children learn why we keep tattered pieces of paper and why we invest money in preserving historical places. They matter to our collective heritage. Public schools preserve democracy. Period. 

So as you fire up the grill and watch some fireworks this week, please consider showing your patriotism in a more lasting way, by supporting the teachers and staff who run your local school. Our nation’s future literally depends on it.

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