Liberty, Part One - The Causes Which Impel Them
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…
Hopefully this sounds vaguely familiar. It’s from the Declaration of Independence – history’s first and most famous combination break-up letter and birth certificate.
If you’ve had a longstanding relationship with someone – whether a lover, parent, spouse, or child – and that someone suddenly bails, you’re well within your rights to expect some sort of explanation. A midday text of “Not wrkng out – CU ltr… or not. Lev my stuff w/ Tori?” simply won’t do. T.J. and the Founders understood this, and explained their break-up in an ‘open letter’ to England and the world.
Your friends are all going to be asking what happened anyway, right? Might as well copy them on the text.
But it’s also a birth certificate in the sense that it describes and proclaims a new nation – a whole new KIND of nation, in fact. Lincoln will refer back to this Declaration in those terms fourscore and seven years later when he speaks of a nation ‘conceived in liberty’ and brought forth by fathers – in this case, ‘Founding’.
Then come the Big Three Rights. They’ll be expanded – or at least clarified – in a subsequent Constitution and its famous First Ten Amendments, but these are the foundation.
The phrasing was presumably borrowed (and modified) from John Locke, who wrote that governments have one job and one job only – the protection of property, defined specifically as life, liberty, and estate. Why T.J. and crew changed the phrasing is subject to discussion, but whatever their motivation, our lil’ nation wasn’t birthed by Locke (as far as we know – although we do have his nose… oh god, what if- ?!). Our legal birth certificate says Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness – not ‘estate’. Everything else is commentary.
So… what do they mean?
That’s the catch. We generally agree on the phrases – Democrats and Republicans, Chicks and Dudes, a wide variety of colors, religions, professions, and educational attainments… we pretty much all love those words.
We just don’t agree on what they mean. So… wrinkle!
Crane Britton in Anatomy of a Revolution argued that when taking over an existing government, there’s no need for a new flag – just change what the flag means. No reason for an entirely new government – so long as existing officials are willing to ‘adapt’. The more extant anthems, slogans, and other nationalistic symbols and phrases you can keep, the better – as long as you effectively reshape what they stand for. What they MEAN.
T.J. and the Founders weren’t going for anything so sneaky; they were proclaiming their goals openly, if a bit poetically. But they did give us words and symbols around which to rally, and were then kind enough to establish before the proverbial ink was dry that the difficulty lie in how those words and symbols are defined. The next three decades were defined by arguments over what our Constitution and accompanying documents actually mean – or should mean, at least. Eventually we went to war with ourselves over it, so... here’s to clarity next time, gentlemen.
We hold these truths to be self-evident
This is either seriously profound or a rather evasive way to confess we’re not actually sure why we believe these things. I’m going to go with profound, because… Jefferson.
that all men are created equal
Pretty tricky to reconcile slavery and subsequent treatment of immigrants and Amerindians with this one, isn’t it? It’s one thing to limit ‘men’ to, well… MEN; it’s another to presume this grand claim of the equality was obviously only intended for Anglo-Saxons of a certain income level. A more accurate rendering of the Founders’ general mindset might have read, “far more men are created essentially equal than most of you thought, although let’s not get carried away and think that’s necessarily everyone, or even a majority.”
Imagine reciting THAT on Declaration Day every year in school.
But when given a choice between accuracy and rhetoric, T.J. often chose the latter. I have no doubt he was entirely sincere – like many of us, Jefferson was quite comfortable believing several contradictory things at once. “I think, therefore I am distorting reality to fit my own needs.”
that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights
The ‘Creator’ part is also vague enough to mean whatever the reader wished it to mean. Many read ‘God’ without even consciously considering alternatives, while those less dogmatic could easily assume a less specific life force – be it Clockmaker, First Causer, or Nature itself.
As to those ‘unalienable’ rights, well… that’s rather bold! ‘Unalienable’ suggests these rights exist even when they’re being violated, or denied. They exist the same even if we attempt to surrender them voluntarily. They exist even if we’re bad people.
Even after the whole ‘all men’ issue was clarified (thank you, 14th Amendment), this is probably the greatest gap between our rhetoric and our actual beliefs as evidenced by our history. And lest we feel all 21st Century superior to our forebears, read it again and then think ‘Guantanamo Bay’. See the problem?
But for now let’s move to those Big Three highlighted earlier.
that among these are
That’s smart. “We’re going to list three biggies here, but we’re not saying these are the only ones.” A similar clarification will be made in the 9th Amendment after detailing various rights in the first eight. It’s not so different from what we do when making school policies – after skirt length and no guns or drugs or sexual harassment usually comes something like “and pretty much anything else we decide gets in the way of what we’re trying to do here.” That way, when some kid comes up with something you simply didn’t anticipate – like, bringing his Komodo Dragon to school – you don’t have to find a specific rule against that in order to send him and his pet home.
This one should be easy, right? And in some ways it is. It does get messy when we’re talking about anything involving a ‘right to die’ for the elderly or seriously damaged. Things get especially tricky when addressing reproduction – especially when it comes to ending existing pregnancies. Even the ‘do some heroin and have sex with your dog’ Libertarians are split over abortion, since this ‘right to life’ is so fundamental in the most original of American documents.
Very few of the folks chanting for choice are against ‘life’. It’s that definition thing again – what do we mean by ‘life’? When, exactly, does it begin – and what does that even mean? Who decides?
So maybe that first one isn’t so easy after all.
and the Pursuit of Happiness.
Yeah, yeah - I skipped one, I know. And I’m not sure what this one means, other than sounding much more positive than ‘estate’, or ‘stuff’. Perhaps it promotes the value of seeking personal fulfillment over simply meeting one’s obligations to community or country. Maybe ‘pursuit of happiness’ is drawn up in contrast to ‘serving one’s king.’ But I’m speculating.
Liberty. Yeah… that one’s going to take a while.
RELATED POST: Liberty, Part Two - On Your Mark, Get Set...