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“Leges sine moribus vanae.”

Laws without morals are useless.

A Penn provost selected something very near this, our current school motto, in 1756. Twenty years later, on July 4, 1776, a similar message was inscribed in the Declaration of Independence.

While the Penn motto asserts only that immoral laws are useless, however, the Declaration goes a step further, insisting that a rule that is unjust should be fought rather than followed. The document enumerates as self-evident truth not only every man’s equal right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, but also that governments exist to secure that right, and “that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it.”

The men who wrote those words were far from perfect, as we well know. Many of them owned slaves, and voted for that right. Most, if not all, of them believed that citizenship should be a privilege reserved to a select few. They routinely voted, argued and wrote against the extension of rights to the poor, the non-white and the female people that constituted the majority of the nation’s residents.

The country they founded is far from perfect, too. Two hundred and thirty-nine years after the Founding Fathers issued the Declaration of Independence, we are still fighting to correct the glaring imperfections of the system they erected. As Americans we inherit a legacy of injustice, oppression and inequality that cannot be overlooked.

But we also inherit a founding idea that is more perfect than the men or the moment that gave it a voice. The idea that we can and should change the laws we find unjust, unequal or immoral. That we have the right to question powerful people and institutions, and long-standing traditions and systems. That we must keep fighting to be happy and equal and free.

I am still hurting, as so many of us are, over the violence, the terror and the tragedy of recent weeks — and, still, of recent and not-so-recent years. I am often discouraged by the hills that we have left to climb, the battles that we have yet to fight. But I am also proud. Two weeks ago the Supreme Court struck down laws prohibiting same-sex marriage all around the country, delivering a victory for an LGBTQ community that has long fought — and is still fighting — to be recognized and treated as fully human. Then, last weekend, the women’s national soccer team won the World Cup for a record third time, validating the struggle for equality in athletic opportunity that American women waged and won in the passage of Title IX. Because after 239 years, we are still fighting. We are still breaking down the walls that would hold us back. We are still free to fight.

It is our ability to remake ourselves in the face of our great errors and injustices that makes us who we are, and that makes me most proud to be here. To be young. To be a Penn student. And to be an American.

The Fourth of July, and what it commemorates, serves as a reminder that laws without morals are useless, and that unjust rules should be fought. In the midst of the ongoing arguments over the country’s founding principles — the long-held definition of marriage, the heritage represented by the Confederate flag and the best way to move forward as a nation — that idea is something we must hold onto.

So much of who we are, what we have and how we live has been passed down or prescribed for us by external forces. We are all shaped by histories and systems that we didn’t create or choose for ourselves. But as we become adults, as we work to find our places in this country and this world, we must not allow the things we inherit to lead us blindly into unkindness or ignorance. We must instead do our best to carve a better world for ourselves out of what we’ve been given. We must never stop questioning the morality of the systems we live within; we must never stop fighting the immorality we find there.

The day we stop is the day we should no longer be proud to be here.

ANNIKA NEKLASON is a rising College junior from Santa Cruz, Calif., studying English. Her email address is

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