Today is the 4th of July. For some, it is just another day. For others it is a day which means there was a shorter work week, a BBQ, some fireworks. Or it is a day for introspection.
233 years ago today, a struggle officially started in a backwards part of the world, along the eastern shores of a land, contested by the European Powers and the native population, a war few thought could be won by those who had declared independence from Great Britain. However, over several years, the colonials eventually managed to win, scraping together a country, clinging to the Atlantic coast. Even the Founding Fathers themselves thought their attempt to form a government would not last altogether that long, maybe fifty years at most. They were wrong on that account.
The Declaration of Independence might be one of the two most important documents ever drafted, the other being the Magna Carta issued in 1215. Like most great works, the problem was in the execution. For its grand tone and intent, the failure to allocate all the rights entombed in this document would lead to strife and hardship for millions through slavery, would lead to the US Civil War, and take decades to rectify the natural place of African Americans, Asian Americans, Native Americans, Women, and many other groups marginalized in practice.
“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.” This sentence is probably the pinnacle of Enlightened thinking, enshrining almost a century of thought which had swept across Europe, causing the old order to crumble.
The question is what do these “self-evident” truths mean?
The first is straight forward. All men are created equal. There is no reason why birth should give one special qualities, such as rank or title. There is no divine right of kingship, no reason instituted by man for superiority. This is not the same as men being disallowed from being superior for other reasons, such as greater physical strength, greater guile, or greater intellect.
“certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” These are not boundless rights, each in some way shaping and molding the others.
Life is the right to exist, to not have genocide conducted against you, be killed, or murdered.
Liberty is the right to exist free from coercion, to exercise ones own free will. It also means accepting the responsibility for ones own actions, and should not infringe upon others rights to Life or the pursuit of Happiness. There is a great deal of discussion and debate about what the bounds of actions, given that liberty exists, are allowed. Socialism generally construes that one should have equal wealth distribution. Libertarianism generally takes the view that greater freedom leads to stronger liberty.
Pursuing Happiness is the right to do what you will. Generally I view this as the right to pursue what you will as long as it does not overly impact the liberty of others, and does not take away the right of others to life. If it makes me happy to sit in the sun and read, then that is something others should allow (pending that I choose not to do said reading in the middle of a freeway for example, which would restrict others liberty and literally their pursuit of happiness if they are driving somewhere they wish to go).
Together, these three unalienable rights constitute “freedom”. It is the grand gift of the Declaration of Independence. Freedom from kings, from an oppressive government, the rights to do with your life as you will. No grand determination of role in society, instead allowing those with the skills and merit to rise. It is the inspiration and the hope of the Declaration and Independence. It is why many people might hate the policies of the United States, but love America at the same time. It is what we, Americans, must always safeguard and hold close. In a time of shadowy wars against those who would see America fall, it is ultimately a cry out for the freedoms that are represented, because those who would perpetuate violence and fear inevitably fail in the face of liberty.