Watchdog Blog

Gilbert Cranberg: ‘Our Liberties We Prize’

Posted at 3:46 pm, April 5th, 2009
Gilbert Cranberg Mug

Not long after I landed in Iowa in the early 1950s I trekked to the state house to listen to a debate about a proposed loyalty oath for public employees. Senator Joseph McCarthy was riding high in those days and an epidemic of loyalty oaths had swept the country. I figured Iowa would be next; after all the Legislature was badly malapportioned and rural-dominated.

Was I ever wrong! I listened in disbelief as one weather-beaten and sun-baked citizen after another rose to denounce the proposal. The gist: Who am I to question the patriotism of my neighbors? Iowa was among the very few states, and perhaps the only one, to reject a loyalty oath at that time of hysteria. Iowa lawmakers didn’t just sidetrack the proposition; they had an up-and-down vote and rejected it.

So I wasn’t hugely surprised when the Iowa Supreme Court decided unanimously the other day that the state constitution entitles same-sex couples to the benefits of marriage. For reasons I haven’t entirely fathomed, Iowa is a place unusually committed to fair dealing and human rights.

As if to explain the phenomenon to the rest of the country, the Democratic leaders of the Iowa House and Senate issued a joint statement immediately following the Iowa high court ruling. They declared that “treating everyone fairly is really a matter of Iowa common sense and Iowa common decency.” The statement enumerated the ways Iowa has honored the sentiment:

“In 1839, Iowa rejected slavery in a decision that found a slave named Ralph became free when he stepped on Iowa soil, 26 years before the end of the Civil War decided the issue.
“In 1868, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled that racially segregated ‘separate but equal’ schools had no place in Iowa, 85 years before the U.S. Supreme Court reached the same decision.
“In 1873 the Iowa Supreme Court ruled against racial discrimination in public accommodations, 91 years before the U.S. reached the same decision.
“In 1869 Iowa became the first state in the union to admit women to the practice of law.”

Oh, yes, Iowa has its share of ornery characters. But the state’s motto, “Our Liberties We Prize and Our Rights We Will Maintain” isn’t just so much verbiage; it actually seems to be imprinted on the state’s soul. Iowa’s same-sex marriage ruling is the latest manifestation.

3 Responses to “‘Our Liberties We Prize’”

  1. Richard Harsham says:

    Hello: Glad to see you’re still up to both new and old tricks! Years ago you favored some of my pieces on your much hallowed op-ed page. All best.

  2. David Reno says:

    Dear Gilbert:

    Great column. I know understand how Iowa could produce my great mentor the late Professor Clark R. Mollenhoff. I would like to talk to you about Mollenhoff at your convenience.

  3. David Reno says:

    Since many reader’s image of Iowa is American Gothic and The Music Man you have performed a valuable service in giving us a historical perspective. This is exactly the context and syntext missing is so much news “coverage.” Keep it coming.

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