“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, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”
This aspiration, enshrined in the preamble to the Declaration of Independence, is the standard against which I judge President Donald Trump, based on Pope Francis’s comment on the day of the new American president’s 2017 inauguration: “Let’s see what he does.” That seems fair, though it was telling that, in the same interview, this gentle Pope invoked Hitler in expressing his concern about the age in which we live, when populists seize on crises and fear to advocate for identity politics and walls.
Now is a time for all of us, whatever our political persuasion, to stand up for what we believe. Think. Speak. Act. But do not sit on the sidelines and fail to answer the call that this country was founded upon — liberty and justice for all. To paraphrase President Trump, all power to the people. Well, we the people must take the mantle! In this hour of greatest need that this nation has faced in its illustrious history, generations of Americans have risen to the challenge of determining who we are, as a people, not content to allow our rulers to define our principles and our values for us.
For my part, I have been doing some Founding Father soul re-searching to put the events of our times in the proper context. In the process, I learned some personal details about the process of pursuing American independence and the people who led it. For instance, Thomas Jefferson was miffed that the committee of five and subsequently the Congress “mangled” his draft text of the Declaration of Independence.
He loved every word he put into this declaration of human rights and liberties, which he already sensed would one day represent the highest hopes and aspirations of free men and women. Benjamin Franklin, who was sitting next to Jefferson during the drafting process, tried to make Jefferson feel better by relating a story about a hatter whose advertisement for hats was edited so heavily that in the end, the only thing left was a picture of a hat.
Jefferson was not amused.
The hat-with-no-words allegory speaks to the inevitable corruption of ideas by committees and bureaucracies and by our representatives and leaders Wise Benjamin sought to enshrine the idea in our founding principles that we must never lose heart, as we speak truth to power, that truth will prevail in the end. As long as we adhere to the moral foundation of the greatest men and women who have preceded us, we will never fail. The day we abandon our forbearers, we are lost, as a people. In contemporary times, we seem to have forgotten our duty, our responsibility, to honor those who have preceded us as a condition to accomplish our own goals, for ourselves and for our nation.
A Higher Aspiration for Society’s Welfare
Jefferson was inspired in his drafting of the declaration by John Locke’s 2nd Treatise of Government. He changed a key thought of Locke’s Treatise that described the purpose of government that safeguards the individual’s inalienable rights in the “pursuit of life, liberty, and property.” Jefferson replaced Locke’s wording with the phrase, “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Adding “happiness” to governmental responsibilities signified a higher aspiration for society’s welfare, i.e., the notion that governments should promote happiness, tranquility, and satisfaction among all people, not only pursue power and the tangible fruits of prosperity.
Hearkening to our formative years as a nation should inspire thought concerning the goals of “success” in governance today. What means “greatness?” At what cost is greatness, if the people lose their capacity to feel contentment, a sense of happiness? While hard to quantify, happiness could presumably be measured through job security, financial independence, education for our children, and a safety net in our old age.
But happiness also means freedom to pursue one’s own identity, to live free of discrimination, to enjoy free speech in all its disruptive glory. The essence of advancing human happiness lies in a nation’s ability to afford all of its citizens dignity, on their own terms.
The idealistic notion Jefferson introduced into our rights is that happiness, being inherently subjective, must be defined by the individual, not by the state. One can have all the material rewards and still not be happy. Government provision of the basic staples of life, even when this is possible, does not guarantee the happiness of the individual. It is the individual who must determine for himself or herself what constitutes “happiness.” In our modern world, in America and abroad, people are clearly yearning for self-determination. They seek dignity, an appreciation of their self-worth from their rulers. In a fundamental sense, the social contract between the ruled and the ruler is under review in contemporary society.
If this fundamental understanding of the popular mood is correct, governments can only satisfy this high requirement if they relinquish sufficient control, whether that be through law or edict, for the people to pursue their own definition of happiness, without unreasonable interference from government. We Americans, like people in every country in the world, aspire to live in a nation that serves a higher purpose of human endeavor in which happiness is not joy, or any emotion. It is something greater — the idea of fulfilling the highest hopes and aspirations of all citizens.
The Contradiction of Slavery
Jefferson’s original draft of the Declaration of Independence also included a reference to slavery in the litany of grievances against King George that were used to justify revolution to the world. Some commentators have speculated that perhaps Jefferson harbored the thought that blaming the Crown for the slave trade might open the possibility of abolishing slavery down the line. That might be wishful thinking, but it is an intriguing idea.
Jefferson was keenly aware of the inherent contradiction between slavery and the high-minded ideals of the impending American rebellion. Jefferson, intellectually at least, had to reconcile the self-evident evil of owning people as property with the human freedom imbedded in principles of American independence.
In the drafting process, the Continental Congress deleted the draft’s reference to slavery because there was no remedy for the practice; no one was prepared to take on that momentous issue, for which most had expressed no deep moral reservation. We need not excuse our founders for that sin, but it is at least understandable, at the very moment they were igniting a revolution against the greatest power on earth.
With the benefit of hindsight, their failure to reconcile the evil of slavery with the ideals of American independence almost destroyed the union, nearly a hundred years later. It took the great vision and leadership of Abraham Lincoln to summon forth the highest virtues of this great nation, at its inception, when he delivered the Emancipation Proclamation that ended slavery and defined the great cause of the Civil War.
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Finally, it was Benjamin Franklin who came up with the wording of “self-evident” in the first line of the declaration, a substitution for “sacred and undeniable” in Jefferson’s original draft paper. Imagine Franklin suggesting the change to a dour Jefferson, who was pouting at the draft process, upset at the mangling of his historic document. Jefferson reportedly became reanimated, agreeing that the more elegant ideal behind using the word “self-evident” was an improvement to his original draft.
I’m not sure whether Jefferson’s canopy that protects the mighty and the humble among us was his inspiration in drafting the Declaration of Independence. But may we always hold this example to be our standard, and no lesser, as we once more seek to define the values and principles that we stand for, as a great nation.
A hat tip to the American historian Joseph J. Ellis for many of the facts in this article.
Image: John Trumbull’s painting, Declaration of Independence, via Wikimedia Commons.