The Declaration of Independence

July 9, 2010

It’s an old question: has anyone read the complete Declaration of Independence? I ask in part because I discovered a few days ago that I had managed to go 55 years without reading past the second paragraph (my high school history teacher, a good, thoughtful man who fought in WWII and survived a Nazi POW camp, discussed only the first two paragraphs in class; he said that the rest contained a lot of propaganda intended to inflame the colonists). I also ask because my local newspaper published the entire Declaration on Sunday, July 4, and as I read, I was struck by the timeliness of some of the wording that I had forgotten or never seen.

  • 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.” Did you notice “among these”? The founders felt that there were more than three unalienable rights. Perhaps the right to basic health care is unalienable? Perhaps the right to breathe the air and drink water that is not contaminated with toxic pollutants? Perhaps the right to meaningful work?
  • 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.” So many people today seem to think that government, all government, is intrinsically opposed to personal safety and happiness. Our founders clearly thought differently. They believed government promoted (“effect”ed) safety and happiness.
  • He has refused his Assent to Laws, most wholesome and necessary for the public good.” The “public good” is an interesting phrase. The founders seemed to be interested in things that would benefit their entire society, not just themselves individually.
  • He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws of Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Land.” The founders saw immigrants as a source of strength and welcomed them.

America’s founders were not anarchists. They treasured the same things that we do today – safety, happiness, liberty. They recognized the futility of making a ‘complete’ list of rights, and were content to list just a few while highlighting that there were others.

Reasonable people, good-hearted people, intelligent people, can disagree about the optimal shape and extent of government, but whenever people enter into such debate they should consider: the founders did not imagine a country without government and they did not imagine that the institutions they founded would be set in stone and would never evolve.

Our future is ours to make. And our future will be our grandchildren’s history.

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