Yesterday, we as a nation once again celebrated the signing of the Declaration of Independence which started our nation on a road to independence. Some refer to this day as Independence Day and others as the 4th of July. Both are accurate references. Whatever a person in the United States refers to the day as, the reason for the celebration is to remember that the document dated on that day in 1776 was a document to declare freedom for all people.
After spending yesterday (and actually the evening before), listening to great music, watching parades, eating way too much food, and watching fireworks, I have been reflecting a bit on the concept of freedom. Freedom comes in many different ways and forms. The Declaration of Independence described freedom in its preamble with these famous words: “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.” As I consider those famous words, I am drawn to share a few thoughts.
First, is the concept of the truths which are stated here as being self-evident. The author of this document indicates that we are all born knowing that these truths exist. This knowledge is re-enforced through our observations and experiences in life. Yet, if this is accurate, we also know that humans have time and time again disputed through words and behaviors what is declared here as truth.
Next, I focus on the phrase, “all men are created equal,” remember that the word “men” was a universal term for humanity during the period of time in which these words were recorded. What does it mean that all humans are created equal? I do not believe that it means we are all the same with all the same gifts or abilities. (See a previous post.) But instead I believe that this phrase was intended to mean that we all were created in a manner and with the gifts and abilities that would allow us to live a full and rewarding life. That no one has the authority to suppress or deny the rights which will be discussed later.
I find it interesting that in this document there is acknowledgement of a “Creator.” This word is not defined in this document and there are many varied views on what was intended here, however, it does make an acknowledgement that there is a higher power that has created humanity. In reading many of the biographies of many of the men who influenced, and later signed, this document, I know that a vast majority of them viewed themselves as Christians. The influence of their Christian faith varied upon each man but it clearly influenced the writings of these men. As a Christian, I naturally concur with the concept of a Creator who endows rights to every human. As a believer, I also would give the name God to this Creator.
The next phrase that draws my attention is “unalienable rights.” According to Black’s Law Dictionary, the word unalienable means: ” incapable of being alienated, that is, sold and transferred.” This means that they are a part of the individual which cannot be removed from the individual in any fashion. We are born with these. So the author was communicating that the rights which he will soon give examples of, are a part of the person that have existed within the person since birth and cannot be removed.
The examples of these rights are then given. They include, “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” I think it is important to note that the author does not indicate this list to be exhaustive. However, it is clear that the author believes these rights to be the most important. These rights are the ones that so many try to suppress and the same rights that so many have fought and died to preserve for others. It is important to note that the definition of these rights is not given here. Yet, since the author has already acknowledged that these are rights which are a part of each individual, it seems clear to me that these rights are to be defined by the individuals.
I think that there are fears that accompany the thought that the definition of individuals providing the definitions to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. One fear is that unless there is a universally accepted (which means a group will create and enforce) the definitions, there will be chaos. I do not totally agree with this fear based on the concepts discussed earlier. If I accept that all are created with the rights which are being defined, and if I believe these rights are not separable from the individual, then I must not only seek them for myself but also refrain from doing anything that would try to deny these rights to others. This refraining would be included in my pursuit of these rights for myself. In other words, my definition of life, liberty and pursuit of happiness cannot include the denial of any of these rights for another person. It is a check and balance type of approach. The Apostle Paul states it this way when he is talking about the freedom given to us in Christ, ““I have the right to do anything,” you say—but not everything is beneficial. “I have the right to do anything”—but not everything is constructive. No one should seek their own good, but the good of others.” (1 Corinthians 10:23-24, NIV)
So as I reflect on the celebration of yesterday and am very grateful for the freedom I experience which was established in the Declaration of Independence, I am mindful of what the author intended. I am also mindful that my freedom is never to lived out through the denial of someone else’s freedom. I am grateful for the generations of men and women who have fought physical and ideological battles to secure that freedom for myself and others. I am also mindful of my duty to continue to speak out against anyone who denies either institutionally, socially, or through legal means, the “inalienable rights” of all humans which include “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”