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U.S. Historical Documents & Democratic Ideals

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  • 0:01 Evolution to Full Rights
  • 0:33 Seneca Falls
  • 1:27 Gettysburg Address
  • 2:29 Universal Declaration…
  • 3:28 I Have a Dream
  • 4:09 Lesson Summary
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Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught middle and high school history, and has a master's degree in Islamic law.

While much of what makes America is an idea, that doesn't mean that there aren't plenty of concrete documents around, too. This lesson tells the story of four of those documents.

Evolution to Full Rights

For all of their admirable qualities, the Founding Fathers certainly had a narrow view of who should be allowed to enjoy many of the newly won freedoms. Women were entirely disenfranchised, as were many non-white groups. Some states were even able to put qualifications on wealth as a precursor for participation in the political process. However, for more than 200 years, Americans have debated, fought, and sometimes died in order to spread the rights granted in the days of the founding of the Republic.

Seneca Falls

The road of women's suffrage was certainly one of the longest. Women did not gain the right to vote until 1920, and even today, argument continues about the status of equal rights between women and men. However, the first real watershed moment of the women's rights movement in the United States happened more than 160 years ago. Meeting at Seneca Falls, New York, the meeting only had about 300 participants, of whom only 100 signed the Declaration of Sentiments, a document that outlined their feelings about the role of women in society and in government.

Women, such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott, a talented speaker, certainly got the attention of the crowd. However, it was a young Frederick Douglass who was able to really help crystallize the crowd behind women's suffrage, even though a debate that he was better known for was still some years away.

Gettysburg Address

Douglass is much better remembered for his work on the abolition movement, or the attempts to rid the United States of slavery. With the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860, it was clear that the question of slavery would soon be answered with blood and bullets. However, it wasn't until 1863 that the Civil War shifted from being about maintaining the Union to instead focusing in no small part on the abolition of slavery.

The most moving two minutes of that entire war came on a November day in 1863, in the town of Gettysburg, PA. Just months before, the largest battle ever fought on American soil had torn the town apart. Now President Lincoln was looking out over a small crowd and, without saying the word 'slavery,' gave new meaning to the war with his Gettysburg Address. Reminding all that this war was about the soul of America, the idea that all men were created equal, his two minutes of speech defined the heart of the United States.

Universal Declaration of Human Rights

After another great war, the world had the opportunity to define what it meant to be human. In this, the United States took a lead role in drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Borrowing heavily from the principled texts of the American Republic, this document said that all men and women everywhere were equal. In fact, the document reads very much like a worldwide Bill of Rights, enumerating rights to a fair trial, freedom from slavery, and freedom from torture.

However, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, while valued worldwide, has met serious opposition from a variety of different groups, most notably certain Muslim-majority states that claim it violates Islamic law. That said, it is interesting to note that many of these views are only espoused by those Muslim-majority states that have a questionable human rights record, and not by other countries, like Turkey, with equally large Muslim populations.

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