“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.” – The Declaration of Independence
There are only a few strokes of actual social genius in the history of mankind, that portion of the Declaration of Independence is one of them. In a mere 55 words, it expresses the essential relationship between individuals, society and government; relationships, under different names, that had been in dispute since the beginning of human history.
One can complain all day about the frailties and shortcomings of the men who conceived of and penned those immortal words. We can try and belittle them by pointing out how morally superior we are because we no longer practice slavery, women have the vote, we educate the disabled and the rest, but all things considered are we really so much closer to perfection than they were?
Before we get too uppity we should also remember that we have a Tax Code of about four million words; words come very cheaply to us now; not so when the Declaration was written. America’s revolutionaries bought their words with their blood at a time when medical care was “basic and flawed” and lives were relatively short.
Nothing we have conceived or done in the 241 years since the summer of 1776 has had had the impact of those 55 words. The Declaration was the mother of the Constitution which provided the essential foundation for all the good things that followed. But the beneficial impacts of those words are fading in a world where too many Americans have now self-isolated and value both safety and comfort over equal rights and liberty.
Government now measures its worth, overwhelmingly, by the dependencies it creates and the conspicuous lack of any demands on its citizens. Too many of those citizens now see economic equality as an entitlement instead of an opportunity and liberty as a synonym for the lack of responsibility. Serving their nation or even being a good citizen is out of style for a large swath of Americans.
Ideals may be old fashioned, but they are still the cement that binds the nation. We may never live up to those words and some of us will even see their meanings in debatable ways; that is acceptable, but when we stop trying we will no longer be the people who defined the self-evident rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness to a world that needed it so desperately and still does.