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.
I want to offer some July 4th thoughts based on this familiar statement from the Declaration of Independence.
- “Truths” – Our founders were moral realists. They believed there was objective truth. They weren’t relativists. This matters because, in their minds, they weren’t seeking to impose what they viewed as mere preference, which is often subject to greed and power, but were making a truthful assertion.
- “Self-evident” – The founders were passively observing the truths that will later be enumerated. They weren’t creating these rights; they were observing rights that they deemed as “self-evident.” In Thomas Jefferson’s letter to Henry Lee, he says: “This was the object of the Declaration of Independence. Not to find out new principles, or new arguments, never before thought of, not merely to say things which had never been said before; but to place before mankind the common sense of the subject, in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent, and to justify ourselves in the independent stand we are compelled to take.”
- “…all men are created equal” – The founders believed in the natural law of equity, that all people possessed equity and deserved justice. This isn’t just an anthropological claim but a claim about our common solidarity as created beings. We don’t earn rights…we don’t buy rights…we don’t get rights based on our capacities…we were created equal. The American experiment is one of progress in realizing more fully this radical claim about our equity and solidarity.
- “…endowed by their Creator” – The “created” language has already been used to establish our equity and solidarity. These rights, if given by mere men, could also be removed by mere men. This claim about a “Creator” is a metaphysical claim. The rights aren’t physical or tangible; they are ideas — and ideas are powerful. The founders placed themselves under the “Creator.” To oppose general equity is to oppose the “Creator.”
- “…unalienable Rights” – The rights are intrinsic, irreducible, not conferred by mere mortals.
- “…Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness” – This triad is the foundation upon which our country was founded. And since this is a claim about all men, generally, this was a claim about our solidarity as humans, irrespective of our nationality. We possess these rights, period. And the government exists to protect the people and their rights. The “pursuit of Happiness” is far more expansive than just property; it’s a claim about dignity.
The ideas of solidarity and equity are even more clearly evidenced in the final statement of the Declaration: “And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.”
The mutual “pledge” was an oath, pledging their “Lives, Fortunes and…sacred Honor.” When the rights of the people are being denied, interference is required, and these men were pledging their own lives for the sake of securing the rights of the people. To govern is to serve…to interfere against the injuries against our general equity and social solidarity. We’re in this together.
While we look back today, we must also be mindful that the American experiment is exceptional only so far as we pledge ourselves for the sake of the other. Injustice suffered by the other requires our interference because of our solidarity. We must be willing to stand on behalf of the other, not just ourselves. Neighborly love requires we stand for the other when they’re denied their rights. May God increase our capacity to act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly, realizing that this mandate (Micah 6:8) necessitates an affirmation of equity (seeking justice), solidarity (treating others with dignity through mercy), and service (humility over selfishness).