July the 4th
There are few days that hold reverence beyond that of the Fourth of July. Not necessarily because of the historically accuracy of the date. (The resolution was introduced on July the 4th 1776, but it would not be formally signed until early August of that year.) Yet, officialdom notwithstanding the date, the resolution when introduced may in fact be the best date to celebrate the “birth” of our nation.
You see, the Declaration as a document is really nothing more than a simple piece of parchment. The ideas contained on that parchment, the philosophy codified on paper by our Founding Fathers transcends a simple list: grievances against King George. The ideas mark a revolutionary principle in political thought. A declarative statement by a government that the power the government wields does not rest with the government itself. Rather, the power comes from the people governed and they in turn receive their power from the Creator.
There were many reasons why we fought our Revolution. Those that subscribe to Marxist theory would state that our Revolution was a natural result of systemic market pressures. Academics and sociologists that rely on a tribalism paradigm would acknowledge the market based approach by the leaders of the Revolution, but mostly focus on the tribalism exhibited among the colonial combatants.
Both of these miss the point.
Each individual that fought and supported the Revolution did so for a variety of reasons (sometimes even conflicting).
Some fought for the “rights of Englishman”.
Some fought for the sovereignty of their own state.
Some even fought for no other reason then the sheer enjoyment of fighting.
All however, took up arms against the Crown, fought for one unified principal: The idea that power resides with the people…. not the government.
This is important. The shared experience of the Revolution created the value system and reinforced the political theory established in the Declaration. Ultimately giving rise to our present Constitution and more importantly, the recognized rights codified in the first ten amendments to that document.
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There are many actionable passages with the Declaration, but the “biggie” is the one most people are familiar with:
We hold these truths to be self-evident. That all men are created equal and 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.
So… grab a cup of coffee and join me as we deconstruct this clause in honor of our two hundred and forty first birthday.
“We hold these truths to be self evident”
What is the importance of the phrase “self-evident”. Everything. You see, self evident means that empirical evidence is not necessary. We do not need to “prove” that the Sun rises in the East. Nor do we need to “prove” that people have a natural yearning towards freedom. We do need to prove through inference more complex theories. If A=B and B=C we can surmise that A also = C. Yet we do not need to prove what A, B, and C are… for their existence (in this postulate) self evident.
“That all men are created equal”
So, the Founding Fathers used the language appropriate at the time. Yes, women were excluded from this political philosophy, formally at least, but that does not negate the value of the equation. Once, we as a society became enlightened to the equal status of women and minorities, the word “men” could be easily expanded to be inclusive of all humanity.
With that out of the way let’s not be distracted by the sexism and let’s focus on the more important word: equal. When equality exists at birth the justification for social status based on “mere existence” becomes intellectually dubious. I cannot claim a superior status based on my lineage… I can, based on my accomplishments and my contributions to society as a whole, but not simply on the fact that “I am”. When we strip away the awards, the bank accounts, the portfolios and the titles, we all share one thing in common… equality in the eyes of the creator.
“and are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights”
This is important.
Rights must come from somewhere. They cannot come from the government. If they do, then they are dependent upon the regime in power at any given time. They must come from something transcendent beyond mortal men. They must come from something higher. Something that is universal and timeless. The Founders identified this being as the Creator. The use of this word was not by accident. They could have easily said “God” but, they didn’t. The Creator is much broader then that. The Creator is synonyms with God. It is also synonyms with Gaia, Mother Nature, the Force, the Pasafarian Spegetti Monster… whatever you want to call Her/Him.
This expansive concept of the Creator is also critically important.
The Declaration does not demand the adherence to a Judaeo-Christian God. To be sure, we were crafted under a Judaeo-Christian construct but, the theory behind the Declaration is even more expansive than that. The Declaration was not written for the group, but for the individual, and my necessity, it is self-evident (remember that phrase?) that all individuals were created by… well a Creator.
Now, since they were created by a Creator, they were also granted essentially all the rights that exist in the universe. This is because the Creator does not create governments. Governments are created by people. Yet the “people” must be invested with the power to create the governments that regulate their behavior. This power is in the form of “rights”…. rights that are transferred to the government for the empowerment of that government. The Declaration tells us to be on notice however: There are certain rights that are “inalienable” meaning that they can not be relinquished, even if the individual wants to. Certain rights we are stuck with, weather we like it or not.
“That among these”
Forgive me for wearing my lawyer hat on this one, but this little sentence is critical. “Among” is the word that needs our attention. “Among” posits that this is not a closed universe. The Declaration is about to direct our attention to three inalienable rights… but we are on notice… there are more then simply these three.
“Are life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness:
Ok… let’s take these one at a time.
“Life”… well this seems obvious. We must retain our right to exist. If we transfer to the government our right to exist then by definition we retain nothing. The government switches from being subservient to the people, to the people being subservient to the government.
“Liberty”… what then is “liberty”? Well, taken at its most basic level… and in constant tension with the idea of government… is the fundamental idea that we as individuals should be free from governmental coercion. Yet, we also institute the government to secure our liberty. This seems to be a contrarian argument. And, to an extent it is. That tension is part of the human condition, yet the Declaration for the first time acknowledged this duality and sought to shift the balance clearly in favor of the individual.
“The Pursuit of Happiness”
Happiness is the most generic of terms. Happiness is also not a universal concept. What makes me happy… (analyzing this stuff from a political theory perspective)… most likely does not make all of you “happy”. Watching Dancing with the Stars, is a recipe for the initiation of my own suicide… but ratings would suggest that there are many out there that do find “happiness” in this. Since happiness is a uniquely personal phenomenon, individuals must be left to their own devices to identify what makes them happy, then purse the means necessary to achieve it. They may never actually achieve the happiness that they desire… In fact, they may realize that what they thought would bring them happiness in fact brings them misery. Furthermore, on a more spiritual level, the Founders would have posited that the pursuit of Happiness is the actual joy… achievement, is an inherently elusive goal.
“That to secure these rights”
These rights, while they are fundamental to the individual, can be meaningless if the individual is targeted by the majority.
“Governments are instituted among men”
So.. the government is a third party that is crafted with one singular purpose: To make sure that individuals are able to enjoy at the very least the three rights granted by the Creator and specified in the Declaration… Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.
“deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed”
Finally, the “BIGGIE”… Government is empowered by the people. They also by definition have the inherent right to withdraw their support of the governed. When this happens the government must be changed… or if change is refused the government becomes illegitimate, and power automatically returns to the people for them to enact a new government.
This is what is typically referred to as a revolution.
Our Revolution was based on these principles. These principles guide our basic fundamental understanding of our own government as well as an understanding of ourselves.
This idea, this belief, that power comes from the governed. That Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness are inalienable rights are the cornerstones of one of the greatest human achievements of all time. This philosophy, crafted by geniuses, and protected throughout our young nations history by the blood of patriots is the reason we celebrate the Fourth.
Take a moment this Fourth of July to reflect on those that have fought, died, and risked their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor….. so that you can be free.