What freedom really means
What comes after the phrase, “and the pursuit of happiness …”?
Tomorrow, we Americans celebrate the Declaration of Independence. Our focus is what the document meant — creation of a new nation.
But what the document itself says about the Founders and about what they intended for us is just as important, in many ways.
“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 …” That single sentence is familiar to many Americans, as well as to freedom-seeking people the world over.
After that, the Founders proceeded to explain just what they meant. The Declaration is very specific about grievances against England. The Founders were listing behavior no free people can tolerate.
Much of the Declaration emphasizes the people’s right to having a voice — and authority — in how they are ruled. Other sections point out the dangers of big, powerful government. One complaint, that the English had “erected a multitude of new offices, and sent hither swarms of officers to harass our people and eat out our substance,” resonates today among lovers of liberty. In some ways, King George III and the Parliament of 1776 would have been astonished at the power, reach and intrusiveness of our government today.
Note that now, as well as then, every new power assumed by government is justified with the claim that we, the people, need to be safeguarded against some real or imagined threat to our freedom, prosperity and security.
Recognize, also, that the Founders wanted only freedom to engage in the pursuit of happiness. They never intended that government would guarantee it to us.
Much has changed since 1776. It is not difficult to imagine that the Founders, were they alive today, would suggest our central government is guilty of some of the offenses they charged against England.
To guard against that very type of metamorphosis, the Founders quickly adopted the Constitution and Bill of Rights, once our independence had been gained. Those documents deserve as much reverence as the Declaration of Independence.
Though it has evolved since 1776, our government remains the envy of many people in other countries. We continue to enjoy high levels of liberty and pursuit of happiness.
Our attention to ensuring all people enjoy those “unalienable rights” is much more conscientious than it was in the beginning. It took us most of a century and a vicious Civil War to make that happen.
Even our definition of “rights” has expanded to an extent the Founders would have considered dangerous, in some ways. They knew that the more we demand from government, the more powerful it becomes.
Those who, like English officials in 1776, would deceive us by claiming that intrusiveness into our lives is for our own good should read one of the key provisions of the Declaration.
Whenever any government becomes destructive of the ideals set forth in the Declaration, “it is the right of the people to alter and abolish it,” signers of the document declared.
What we celebrate today, then, is both a declaration of intent and a warning to those who would infringe upon our liberties. Woe be unto anyone who crosses the line set down in the Declaration.
That — our independence in 1776 and our ongoing determination to preserve our liberties — is worth celebrating. It also is worth, at least once a year, thinking about precisely what freedom means.
Happy Independence Day.