Thursday, February 20, 2014

The Declaration of Independence, Part IV: Fundamental Rights

All that’s left to discuss is the one part of the Declaration that most people are already familiar with. I mean, of course, this statement:

“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.”

            I would argue that few things are more central to America’s sense of self than these words and the ideas they embody. For that reason I will now proceed to pull them apart in what I’m sure will seem to some people to be a most unflattering way.


To begin, I think it’s important to understand what Jefferson meant by the phrase, “all men are created equal.” If you’ve been paying attention, and you remember what was said in the previous post, you’ll no doubt recognize this as a very Lockean idea. Locke (roughly) said that in a state of nature all men enjoy the same freedom, and that effectively every man is a king unto himself. It follows then that upon coming into existence, every man is, of essence, the same. This sameness is not in regard of height, weight, intellectual capacity or shoe size, but refers to a fundamental, moral quality. This, I think, Jefferson agreed with.

What he did not mean, and this is important, is that all men remain equal after they are born and until they die. Whatever Jefferson’s beliefs were, and they can be difficult to pin down, one of them was not that a peasant and a king are equal to each other in all things. One lives in a palace and the other in a hut. One has advisors and ministers, and the other has oxen and cows. One enjoys a great number of privileges, due to his wealth, and the other enjoys very little at all, due to his poverty. Jefferson, who was a wealthy landowner with hundreds of slaves at his disposal, and who over the course of his life developed a taste for fine wine and fine art, knew this as well as any man. After all, he was closer to being a king than a peasant, was aware of the advantages he enjoyed, and would have been loathe to give them up. And yet he claimed that both a king and a peasant are entitled to life, entitled to liberty, and entitled to pursue whatever it is that makes them happy.

And therein lies the other radical component of that memorable phrase, that all men have a right to live, to be free, and to pursue happiness. I don’t know that I can convey what a fundamentally earth-shaking notion that was in 1776. That isn’t to say that it had never been thought of before; Locke had written in 1689 that all men had a right to life, liberty and property. But then Locke, for all his importance as a political philosopher, never had the opportunity to build a state from the ground up. His theories would remain theories, at least in his lifetime. Jefferson and his colleagues, however, were engaged in just such an exercise. True, the state that they were creating was in many ways grounded in the English concept of rights and responsibilities, but at its core was a revolutionary take on the concept human freedom.

No state in existence in the late 18th century, and perhaps no state in history, had ever been founded on the notion that all people have the right to live, be free, and be happy. Kingdoms, empires, even the republics of Rome and Greece, valued order, balance, stability, and discipline. In states like these different social orders were a fact of life, a consequence of divisions of wealth, ability and birth. The purpose of government was thus to maintain equilibrium. While it was preferred in most cases that the social orders look kindly on each other, in practice this was not often so. Indeed, it would have been pleasant to imagine that George III cared for the life or liberty of his subjects; in truth I’m sure he was concerned mainly with their ability to pay taxes. And as to their happiness, how could any government guarantee something so abstract? And it was not just happiness itself that all people were supposedly entitled to, but the right to determine and pursue happiness for themselves.

But Jefferson, Adams, Franklin, and their cohorts believed that any government that could be considered legitimate must not only care about the life, liberty, and happiness of the people, but must actively protect them. And so they began their Declaration of Independence, their announcement to the world of the birth of a new nation, by stating unequivocally that all men are created equal, and that all men have the rights. True, it was not law. It was something else; the founding principle of one of the most unusual, contradictory, baffling and exceptional nations ever to exist.         
-Applause break-

Now, before I wrap up I’d like to look at the last line of the Declaration. After having laid out their case, discussed the natural rights of man and made it very clear to King George that they were quite displeased with him, the revolutionaries concluded their press release by stating that, “For the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.”

I think it bears remembering that the men who affixed their signatures right below this statement were as privileged a group as you’d have been likely to find living and working in the Thirteen Colonies. They counted among their number a doctor and a clergyman, lawyers, merchants, statesmen and plantation owners. They had, on the whole, a great deal to lose. And yet they were willing to give up their wealth, their honor, and even their lives for this country of theirs that they had conjured into existence. And some of them did pay; they lost their fortunes, were imprisoned, or were worn down by the stress of the war effort and wasted away. But the point is, I think, that they were all willing.

I would not go so far as to say that modern politics should be such a make or break endeavour, or that American politicians should be made to take a similar pledge to uphold their principles and those of the republic. However, I do think that it is highly unfortunate that so many of them seem so terrified of doing what they feel is right if it means losing half a percentage point from their approval rating. There is an element of self-sacrifice that is increasingly absent from American political life. Public service seems no longer to be about service at all, but functions rather as a means of gathering wealth, or advantage, or power. And time and again the Founding Fathers are invoked; what they would think, and what they intended. I believe, rather than speculating as to Jefferson’s thoughts or Washington’s ideals, one should look no further than their own words. The results may surprise you. 

See for yourself:

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