Understanding Our Rights Requires Knowledge of History

By Ken Wells

When did we all actually gain the freedoms we celebrate as Americans?

Was it on July 4, 1776? Certainly not! Even here in East Andover into the early 1800’s, some white-skinned people were indentured or declared “paupers” whose servitude and labor was auctioned off to wealthier citizens, as if they were enslaved chattel. (See Eastman’s History of the Town of Andover New Hampshire, pages 226-227.)

Was it in 1863 with the Emancipation Proclamation? Or did American “freedom for all” have to wait until 1868 for the 14th Amendment, guaranteeing “equal protection under the law” to all Americans born here, as well as to naturalized Americans who came here as immigrants?

Was it in 1870, with the ratification of the 15th Amendment, declaring the “right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude…”

Or when American women finally became voting citizens in 1921?

Or when Native Americans received their freedom to vote in 1924?

Or did freedom actually arrive even later, when the Civil Rights Act was enacted in 1965 to disallow voter suppression through poll taxes, literacy tests, and other such means?

Obviously, the worthy vision of the Founding Fathers has been slow in arriving to all Americans. We still aspire to the American ideal of freedom, liberty, and justice for all, yet its full attainment remains out of reach for some Americans today. 

Measures to suppress voting are still being enacted in New Hampshire and elsewhere, with the excuse that more stringent restrictions are needed to guard against unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud. How is this different from systematic disenfranchisement of Americans according to race, gender, economic status, etc., through the years?

As Americans, we all expect the right to have a voice in our own government, to self-determination for our communities, and to have autonomous control of our own bodies and the personal conduct of our own lives.

What some call our freedoms are indeed our rights as Americans, and they include much more than the freedom to vote. If you haven’t had a reason to revisit the US Constitution’s Bill of Rights since grade school, you might like to look again, because so much of it is of vital relevance to maintaining our American democracy today. Every one of our freedoms in the Bill of Rights is important, and are nicely explained here: archives.gov/founding-docs/bill-of-rights/what-does-it-say.

The questions posed in this article are not comfortable questions. But our continued progress toward “a more perfect union” requires a frank and truthful discussion of our history as a colony and a country, and an equally frank and truthful assessment of where we actually stand today.

The “divisive concepts” language of HB544 in this session of the New Hampshire legislature, incongruously embedded in the state budget, prohibits state-funded institutions from discussing aspects of our problematic past that even today continue to deny some Americans their rights and freedoms. This prohibition to speak only about past injustices – the “historical existence of ideas and subjects” which were supremacist and discriminatory (to quote the language of recent legislative changes to RSA193: 40, II) limits discussion of current, continuing unequal treatment and discrimination against underrepresented groups. 

It’s as if all the old problems had been fixed once and for all, as if all Americans today enjoy the same freedoms and advantages, as if no further vigilance is necessary, nor further complaints allowed. I believe this is a blatant violation of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution and therefore should not be allowed to stand as the law in New Hampshire.

Much propaganda, secondhand narratives, and “strawman” theories are circulating on the internet and the media. These conclude that our government should suppress free speech in our schools and government-contracted institutions and put limitations on our freedom to vote.

I urge you to read original documents such as the United States Bill of Rights, and also the New Hampshire Social Studies Curriculum (education.nh.gov/sites/g/files/ehbemt326/files/inline-documents/standards-socialstudies-framework.pdf) in order to determine for yourself what is the truth. Pay particular notice of the current curriculum for New Hampshire K-12 schools. On page 7 of that curriculum, under the headings of “Conflict and Cooperation” and also “Civic Ideals, Practices, and Engagement,” you will see topics including “causes of the Civil War,” “Triangular Trade” (slave trade), as well as “How has the meaning of citizenship evolved over time?” 

Today’s students should also learn how the historic practice of “redlining” discouraged investment in Black and poverty-stricken neighborhoods. They should know that the way New Hampshire uses local property taxes to fund local schools was declared unconstitutional more than 20 years ago, yet remains unchanged. 

Both practices were invented in the 20th century to disenfranchise, segregate, and impoverish Black US citizens, but today they are being used to extract wealth from New Hampshire citizens in large numbers and to undermine our ability to participate effectively in our democracy. To learn more about this, I recommend Sum of Us by Heather McGhee and The Color of Law by Richard Rothstein.

Our children deserve a truthful education that
develops their critical thinking skills, practiced in new contexts
underscores the responsibilities they will have as adults for their communities and our nation
explains why the meaning of US citizenship has expanded since our country’s founding.

Don’t you agree that the meaning of citizenship and the scope of our American freedoms should be allowed to grow and continue to evolve?