“When in the course of human events,” we lose focus on the lofty goals of our grand American experiment, I find it helpful to harken back to our founding documents. Like a hiker who wanders off the trail, our Declaration of Independence should be a roadmap for us to find our way back to the path toward seeking “a more perfect union.”
Some people may believe that the words of our founding documents have become trite or that, over time, they’ve lost their power. But to me their familiarity provides them more power; like a mantra in a meditation, knowing, and more importantly, understanding, the key phrases at the foundation of our republic focuses our attention on the goal.
Each year on Independence Day I make an effort to take some time to read the Declaration again, to meditate and focus my attention on the important concepts that make us unique. Here are a few of the phrases that carry the most meaning and the most power to me:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…”
It’s important to remember that this, now well-known, phrase was an earth-shattering assertion in 1776. In the hierarchical world of 18th century western civilization, the thought that a peasant could be on an equal footing with a member of the titled ruling class was unfathomable. While in the colonies, there was no titled class, there were still class distinctions. The fact that we were declaring that each person, regardless of class, was equal was a “revolutionary” change.
“…that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness…”
There are two concepts in this key phrase that are often either glossed over or commonly misunderstood. First is that our rights don’t flow from the government. Our rights are universal, natural rights—we get them from “our Creator.” Government’s duty is to ensure these rights are respected, not to bestow them on us. The Founders believed (as we should too) that all the people on Earth possess these rights. They aren’t uniquely American. What is uniquely American is that our government acknowledges and protects these universal truths. The second concept is that our rights are not limited to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Those are just a few “among these” many rights that the Founders believed were notable and worth explicitly listing. That list gets expanded in the Bill of Rights, but it is still not an exhaustive list.
“Governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…”
We need to be reminded, and more importantly, our rulers need to be reminded that since we are all equal, elected officials only retain their power when we consent to grant it to them. If their actions and policies don’t remain just we reserve the right to withdraw our consent at will. The President is often referred to as “the first among equals.” That is a reiteration of the fact that the American President, no matter who occupies that office, is no different or better than the rest of us. The President isn’t a monarch, he doesn’t inherit his title by the Devine Right of Kings. We consent to allowing the President to lead us. Same for all of our other elected officials.
“…and for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Devine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor…”
The Founders knew full well that standing up to the King of England wasn’t something that could be done without serious consequences. They signed their names to this Declaration and stated unequivocally they were putting their money, reputation, and life on the line to establish our republic. Standing up like this has come to be known as speaking truth to power. We should all have this same commitment to upholding our American ideals. We likely won’t be called upon to lay down our lives—but pushing back against the powerful may cost some of us some hits to our reputation.
With all of the turmoil of 2020, this year more than ever, we should take some time to consult our republic’s roadmaps and get our bearing. We need to remain vigilant that we stay on course. The American experiment only keeps getting better and stays on the path to a “more perfect union” by standing up and holding the powerful accountable to us and to our ideals.