Happy 234th birthday to America! The Fourth of July is the celebration of our nation’s birth, of course, but it’s also an ideal time to reflect on what our country is all about. A good place to start would be the Declaration of Independence.
The Declaration of Independence specifically mentions three unalienable rights which human beings possess by birth and by their Creator – life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Nobody can deny us these things, no one. And since they are “unalienable,” we cannot rightfully surrender them either. (Yes, it is UNalienable, not INalienable.)
The right to life is pretty self-explanatory, as is the right to liberty. But the right to the pursuit of happiness is many times mistaken to mean the right to happiness itself, or worse, the right to have fun. The Declaration does not state that we have a right to happiness, it states only that we have a right to pursue happiness.
When Thomas Jefferson wrote of “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness” he was echoing what was written in the seventeenth century by two Englishman. Philosopher Richard Cumberland said that promoting the well-being of our fellow humans is essential to the “pursuit of our own happiness” and John Locke wrote in his 1693 “Essay Concerning Human Understanding” that “the highest perfection of intellectual nature lies in a careful and constant pursuit of true and solid happiness.”
Happiness as stated in the Declaration didn’t really mean “happiness” the way we think of it today. Pursuing happiness was akin to pursuing property ownership, having worldly things.
In his “Second Treatise on Government” Locke descibed the most desirable government as one that protected human “life, liberty, and estate.” The first and second article of the Virginia Declaration of Rights adopted unanimously by the Virginia Convention of Delegates on June 12, 1776 states as follows:
“That all men are by nature equally free and independent, and have certain inherent rights, of which, when they enter into a state of society, they cannot, by any compact, deprive or divest their posterity; namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.”
When writing the final drafts of the Declaration of Independence, Benjamin Franklin agreed with Jefferson to substitute the word “happiness” for the word “property.” So happiness it became.
Property rights were at the very heart of the dispute which led to the American Revolution. At that time when Americans listed the rights of man, they often said “life, liberty, and property.” Boston’s 1772 “Rights of the Colonists” were typical. It said: “Among the natural rights of the colonists are these: First, a right to life; secondly to liberty; thirdly to property.” As with happiness, this is not a right to property itself, but a right to use one’s talents to acquire property, and to use it as one sees fit, as long as one does not hurt oneself or others.
The idea of breaking away from England was part of an effort towards a more limited government. The Americans who protested against British intrusion on colonial liberties were not revolutionaries seeking the radical restructuring of society, they simply wanted to preserve their traditional and unalienable rights. This was quite a bit different from what became the French Revolution soon after.
The American Revolution was about Americans defending their traditional rights, while the French revolutionaries despised French traditions and attempted to change everything, to start from scratch: new governing configurations, new provincial boundaries, a new “religion,” a new calendar, and the guillotine for those who objected. Americans didn’t want to destroy everything, they wanted to get big government (the King) out of their lives and let them alone to shape their own destiny as they had for many decades before British encroachments began.
In this regard you could say that the American patriots were true conservatives. They wanted the freedom of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness that living under the British government with its restrictive acts and taxation made impossible. The British constitution was “unwritten” – it was a flexible collection of documents and traditions, too flexible for the colonists. It gave the government too much leeway over the colonists’ liberties and rights.
You might say that the British constitution was a living, breathing Constitution that changes with the times. Sound familiar? Sort of like what far-left liberals want to see in our own Constitution today. The Founding Fathers would have hated this. They risked their lives to stop it.
In those famous words of Patrick Henry: “Is life so dear or peace so sweet as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God. I know not what course others may take, but as for me, give me liberty or give me death.”
God Bless America.