“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
These words are extraordinary: every human being has “God-given” or, if you prefer, “natural” rights to live, be free, and pursue their happiness. So, in the Founders’ understanding, natural rights would include the right to life itself, the right to think for oneself, the right to self-defense, and the right to keep what one has worked honestly for, among others. The Founders knew that we need some protection in order to have the freedom to exercise those rights. Legal rights (such as the right to vote) are those that are acknowledged and protected by a given government. Governments were legitimate to the extent that they protected rights. Those that arbitrarily took them away possessed no moral authority. The Founders understood that even virtuous leaders, however, can succumb to the temptation to abuse the rights of others, so they designed a federal government that would have limited power, and whose branches would check one another.
Thomas Paine begins the pamphlet Common Sense with an observation that people tend to confuse government with society. According to Paine, society promotes our happiness positively by uniting our affections, while government is there only to protect life and property. Don’t get them twisted, folks. If all people acted morally, government would not be necessary; but since people are fallible, government is “a necessary evil” for the protection of life and property, and its success is to be judged by the extent to which it fulfills this role. If it fails to improve society or, worse, actively causes some of the same troubles that would result from anarchy, by Paine’s standards, it is far worse than if such behavior were to occur on its own; since the people create and support the government, and are therefore causing their own troubles. So, ultimately, freedom depends on citizens who care enough about preserving it to really evaluate the people who run for office, and on citizens having the wisdom, courage, and sense of justice necessary to act when they see government overstepping its bounds.
When the Founders wrote in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal,” they were aware of the differences that make people individuals—differences in appearance, personality, aptitude, skills, and character; that the government therefore must work to serve the common good, treating every citizen equally, regardless of agreeing with their beliefs, political or otherwise. They only exception, and only with due process of law, is when necessary to advance a compelling government interest, such as public safety, national security, or the protection of the rights of others.
Therefore, these rights apply not only to those mentioned in the Declaration, but to all: Rich and poor, Republican and Democrat, white and black, man and woman, Asian and Hispanic, liberal and conservative, gay and straight, Jew and Christian, Muslim and Hindu. Many of these groups, did not even exist in America in the colonial era. But, the Declaration’s intent is clear; that they too have “inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
This July 4th, as we watch fireworks and wave flags in celebration, may we also pause to reflect on our nation’s heritage. As the festivities end (generally about 2am here on Mission Blvd) and the last trails of smoke glide across the summer night sky, (especially now, at a time when much negativity dominates our public media) I will take a moment to thank God, and you can thank whoever you thank, for all that our freedom allows.