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 — That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed, …. — from the Declaration of Independence, enacted July 4, 1776 by the Second Continental Congress.
The heart and soul of the American experiment can be found in these few, timeless and beautiful words written by Thomas Jefferson. The Declaration of Independence was meant to be a straightforward justification to King George III for the decision of the 13 colonies to declare themselves “free and independent states,” with the right to govern themselves as the citizens of those states saw fit.
And true enough, the main part of the Declaration contains a list of grievances and allegations of mistreatment by the English Crown against the colonies.
But the introduction to the Declaration goes far beyond the mere act of petitioning for a redress of grievances. It soars with the most noble ideals about the nature of human life and the source of human rights. And because of that, the Declaration has become not merely a historical footnote in the long struggle for American independence, but the very heart of the American ideal.
The equality of all men and women is self-evident, according to Jefferson… nevertheless, many in history have denied that fact — and continue to deny it today. We fought a long Civil War to secure equality for American blacks. American women have had to fight legislative battles to secure the right to vote and to be paid the same wages as men for equal work. Catholics, Jews, Mormons and other minority religious groups have been unfairly discriminated against, a sad fact that continues to this day.
The Jeffersonian ideal has often seared our consciences and forced us to examine our laws and attitudes, to ask, time and again, if we still believe those words written 235 years ago. The realities of life may fall short of the ideal, but Americans still want our country to be a place where human equality flourishes.
On less sure footing are those unalienable rights to Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness. Jefferson claimed these rights are granted by God and are therefore unalterable and irrevocable. We can argue at length about what sort of “god” Jefferson believed in, but the clear meaning of his text is that there exists a set of fundamental human rights (and not only these three, since he says “among these are“) that have been given to all human beings by a power greater than government. That being the case, no government, no religion, no mob has the power to take those rights away.
Indeed, the primary purpose of government is to “secure” those rights, to safeguard them through just laws and a social structure that encourages and protects the ordinary, day-to-day expression of those human rights.
That these rights need to be secured is Jefferson’s acknowledgment of sin and the dark underbelly of humanity. Men and women have been created equal, but we have a tendency towards oppression, discrimination and favoritism.
We may have the right to Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness, but humanity has consistently inclined itself towards murder, slavery, injustice, greed, and all manner of wickedness, both great and petty, against each another. We deliberately violate these God-given rights and even have the chutzpah to use the power of government to assist us in our dirty work.
The worst enemies of the American experiment are our own sinful and self-centered hearts.
Despite our human failings, it remains true on this July 4, 2011, that Jefferson’s words still bind us together as a nation. Americans remain committed to Jefferson’s noble vision. We are an idealistic nation, convinced that we can be better than we are and committed to the hard work of making these words congruent with the reality that is our daily American life.
May God bless America, and may he help us make Jefferson’s ideal our reality, first in our own hearts and then in the heart of this special nation.