One of our state lawmakers has argued that “our First Amendment rights to religion, speech, assembly, and association, endowed by our Creator, are not subject to government approval. The First Amendment is designed not just to protect popular or politically correct religious beliefs or speech. It is designed to protect all religious beliefs and speech—even repulsive ones.”
This lawmaker buttressed his idea that our First Amendment rights are “endowed by our Creator” by citing the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men…are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.”
Combining statements made in two distinctly separate documents written for two distinctly separate purposes in this way can lead to mental and political mischief of the kind we have seen in our legislature for several sessions.
Missouri spends tens of millions of dollars every year so people like this lawmaker and his colleagues can, indeed, determine what our rights are. Missouri has volume after volume of books that define our rights, some of which were favored by lawmakers such as this one who has argued that “Our country was founded on the belief that there are some areas into which government must not intrude.”
Anybody want to read through twenty volumes of Missouri statutes (plus the sixteen annual supplements published since the last statute books were put between hard covers) to find some areas in which the legislature has NOT passed some kind of intrusive law?
The unfortunately biggest flaw in the lawmaker’s reasoning comes from his citation of the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence (which, by the way, does NOT establish Freedom of Speech, Religion, Press, and Peaceful Assembly): “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men…are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”
The same lawmaker who once accused opponents of the campus religious freedom bill of pretzeling the debate to say the bill sanctions discrimination didn’t do such a bad job of pretzel-making himself by leaving out a critical qualification in that sentence. You remember from school, don’t you, that the sentence really begins: “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men ARE CREATED EQUAL, AND THAT THEY are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights…”
Equality. What an inconvenient concept. It’s so much more convenient to leave out that part of the sentence to make this argument.
Equality gets in the way of so many things. Recognizing the idea that everybody is equally entitled to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness could cause massive problems for those who are well-paid to make sure their clients enjoy those rights more than others or to those who think government-sanctioned privilege is something for them to buy for their own purposes. Government would be so much easier and so much more convenient to some people if it were not for that troublesome requirement that equality be part of the equation. But ignoring it is easy.
And there’s another flaw in the use of the quotation in this discussion. It stops with “happiness.” Let’s look at the entire sentence:
“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 to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,”
There’s a comma after “happiness,” not a period. But look at what the Declaration really says: that “to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men…” The founding fathers sanctioned government as the means to balance those natural rights. Our lawmaker correctly says the Declaration does not say certain rights are “afforded” us by government. What the Declaration says is that governments are created to SECURE those rights in which all have an equal opportunity to share.
Gosh, this document is a whole lot more inconvenient than some would like us to think, isn’t it?
After that, the second sentence says, “That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive to these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”
There’s a lot more after the first “happiness.” But it’s more convenient to discuss only the first part, and certainly more convenient to be selective in what part of the sentence is used to justify a position. But it’s time to think about what the Declaration of Independence says. Really says. All of it.
Professor Danielle Allen of Princeton’s Institute of Advanced Study has a book out called Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence on Defense of Equality. In the prologue, she wrote, “The Declaration of Independence matters because it helps us see that we cannot have freedom without equality. It is out of an egalitarian commitment that a people grows—a people that is capable of protecting us all collectively, and each of us individually, from domination. If the Declaration can stake a claim to freedom, it is only because it is so clear-eyed about the fact that the people’s strength resides in its equality.”
There it is. The inconvenient concept. Equality.
“Political philosophers have generated the view that equality and freedom are necessarily in tension with each other, “she wrote. “As a public we have swallowed this argument whole. We think we are required to choose between freedom and equality. Our choice in recent years has tipped toward freedom…Such a choice is dangerous. If we abandon equality, we lose the single bond that makes us a community, that makes us a people with the capacity to be free collectively and individually in the first place.”
Professor Allen spends 282 highly-readable pages taking the Declaration sentence by sentence and sometimes wordy by word to emphasize the care with which it was written and the purposes for each element. It’s not just something to read quickly on July 4tth.
From its beginning when it states that the time has come for the colonies to be considered an independent nation of equal standing with other nations to the last sentence that says the signers who come from a variety of economic, social, and religious backgrounds “mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor,” the Declaration is about equality.
It was signed by wealthy delegates such as John Hancock and Charles Carroll as well as by Button Gwinnett, whose life is described by one source as “one of economic and political disappointment,” and James Wilson, who later spent time in a debtor’s prison. They were equals as delegates. They were equals in what they dreamed of. They were equals in the risk they knew they were taking.
The Declaration of Independence is so important it should be studied carefully by voters and those they elect. Only by doing that, Professor Allen argues, can its true importance be understood and the descendants of those who risked everything by writing it, adopting it, and signing it be free.
And freedom is not freedom if it is not equally shared and is not an equally-borne responsibility.