On July Fourth, we celebrated Independence Day, the day when the world-changing Declaration of Independence was signed. But the Declaration did more than declare political independence. Most of the document is devoted to explaining why the American Colonies decided to “dissolve the political bands” that connected them with Great Britain.
Mind you, much of the philosophy behind the Declaration doesn’t come straight out of the Bible, though the writer does appeal to God to justify this political move. The Declaration is full of Enlightenment thinking, which can be traced to John Locke way back in the 1600’s. Enlightenment philosophy pushed back against the “sovereign right of kings,” which had dominated thinking for so long.
The sovereign right of kings used the Bible to justify the king’s utter and absolute authority. Enlightenment philosophy countered that the individual citizens of a country have certain rights as individuals, regardless of who is in power.
So, on to the reasoning Mr. Thomas Jefferson gave for seceding, as it were, from Great Britain. The second sentence in the document reads thus:
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.
Are not they inspiring words?
We hold these truths
Wait right there. Notice that word truths. Apparently early American thinking acknowledged absolute truth. In fact, Mr. Jefferson proffers truth as the basis for independence. My, but haven’t we come a long way since then?
to be self-evident,
And here begins a list of the truths which are the foundation of freedom.
that all men are created equal,
Now that one’s important. It actually took the United States a while to fully embrace that, as evidenced by slavery and segregation.
that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights,
If the Creator doesn’t endow them, we certainly have no way of determining what they are, and the founders of America recognized this. After all, they believed they had a right to have a representative in government if they were to be taxed. The British Crown denied this right. If men are responsible for choosing rights, then the person with the most power is correct. Period. But if Someone who transcends human affairs chooses the rights, then a person has those rights, no matter what. (I’m not saying God did or didn’t assign the rights Mr. Jefferson claimed. I’m saying Mr. Jefferson knew how to make a solid argument. He appealed to higher authority–the Maker of humankind. He acknowledged that his own opinion wasn’t enough.)
that among these are Life,
Come to think of it, we have yet to embrace these Rights for all humans in this country. Because extremely small people can be murdered at the convenience of their mothers (or sometimes fathers or grandparents).
Here I will include two definitions of liberty from Noah Webster’s 1828 American Dictionary of the English Language:
“Natural liberty, consists in the power of acting as one thinks fit, without any restraint or control, except from the laws of nature. It is a state or exemption from the control of others, and from positive laws and the institutions of social life. This liberty is abridged by the establishment of government.”
“Civil liberty, is the liberty of men in a state of society, or natural liberty, so far only abridged and restrained, as is necessary and expedient for the safety and interest of the society, state or nation. A restraint of natural liberty, not necessary or expedient for the public, is tyranny or oppression. Civil liberty is an exemption from the arbitrary will of others, which exemption is secured by established laws, which restrain every man from injuring or controlling another. Hence the restraints of law are essential to civil liberty.
‘The liberty of one depends not so much on the removal of all restraint from him, as on the due restraint upon the liberty of others.’
In this sentence, the latter word liberty denotes natural liberty.”
I’m guessing that the Declaration refers to civil liberty, but see what you think.
and the pursuit of Happiness.
Actually, I believe mankind has a greater purpose than just pursuing happiness. I also believe that Christians have a duty to do more than pursue happiness. But for the citizens of a civilized nation, upon whom we wish to impose no particular religion, I suppose it makes a fine enough summation of a person’s desires.
(I might add here that the pursuit of personal happiness could become detrimental to others if your happiness came at the expense of another person’s welfare. Which is why governments are established.)
Fascinating–is it not?–the depth behind these words. I could go on (of course! Writers can get excessively long-winded). But I won’t. Here is a link to the transcript of the Declaration of Independence if you care to read it in its entirety. ‘Tis worth reading once in a while, perhaps even aloud.
Good to remember where we came from.