There are not too many written documents as important—or beautiful—as the Preamble to the Declaration of Independence, written by Thomas Jefferson with coaching from John Adams, two men who would later be political rivals, and later still friends (both of whom would die a few hours apart on July 4th, 1826).
The document itself is a product of its time, as were the men who wrote it, which is to say flawed by the contradictions we recognize between their aspirational words and some of their actions, as what they wrote did not extend to slaves or women, something that has taken us hundreds of years to correct. But Jefferson’s words are still aspirational and still drive us towards a standard that somehow manages to evade us.
“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.”
In the time America declared its independence from England, your life, your liberty, and your pursuit of Happiness were not guaranteed. Some were born “more equal,” and as such, dominated and subjugated others. What to do if you believe you are equal?
“When in the course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and assume the powers on earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect for the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.”
There is a long line of complaints that give rise to the separation of America from England in the document, and they are worth reading. But the Preamble continues the creation of a nation with a reason for its being and the role of government.
“That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,—”
The government is created to protect the rights to Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. It is designed to protect the individual from the collective, what is perhaps the most important, most overlooked, and one of the most important ideas contained in the Preamble. Benjamin Franklin once described Democracy as “Three wolves and a sheep voting on what’s for dinner.” Winston Churchill is credited with describing Democracy as “The worst form of government except for all the other forms.” The Preamble sets a standard for the protection of your individual rights from the collective, your independence.
The case for government and its limits was never better stated than Thomas Paine, the radical pamphleteer without whom there may have never been a war for Independence, his Common Sense swaying many to the side of separation and the creation of a democratic republic.
“Society in every state is a blessing, but Government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil; in its worst state an intolerable one: for when we suffer, or are exposed to the same miseries BY A GOVERNMENT, which we might expect in a country WITHOUT GOVERNMENT, our calamity is heightened by reflecting that we furnish the means by which we suffer. Government, like dress, is the badge of lost innocence; the palaces of kings are built upon the ruins of the bowers of paradise. For were the impulses of conscience clear, uniform and irresistibly obeyed, man would need no other lawgiver; but that not being the case, he finds it necessary to surrender up a part of his property to furnish means for the protection of the rest; and this he is induced to do by the same prudence which in every other case advises him, out of two evils to choose the least. Wherefore, security being the true design and end of government, it unanswerably follows that whatever form thereof appears most likely to ensure it to us, with the least expense and greatest benefit, is preferable to all others.”
It would take a war and thirteen years before the United States would have a Constitution, a technical document in which power was split among three bodies to ensure no one could acquire absolute power (the result of which has been the gridlock the Founders designed into the system) and infringe upon unalienable rights. It would take two more years to ratify the Bill of Rights, a written document designed to protect those individual rights.
The first of these Amendments reads: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, or abridging the freedom of speech or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”
This was the first of ten amendments to the Constitution (initially twelve, with only ten being adopted) and it is the cornerstone of the protection of our unalienable rights. Your thoughts and beliefs and your ability to express them are protected from the collective, including the government that exists to protect this right, as part of Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.
Independence Day is my favorite of all holidays. While I am not personally political, my sympathy always lies on the side of individual freedom, that being my overriding value.
Today I wish the freedom we often take for granted for everyone everywhere on Earth, especially those places where people still live with political bonds that are the result of the nothing more than the circumstances of their birth, where government provides no greater security than no government at all, and who are still in bonds they have not yet broken but most assuredly will, as assuredly as man is endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.
Want more great articles, insights, and discussions?
Share this post with your network
Filed under: Writing