Rights, Powers, Privileges, and Responsibilities
By Richard Girard
“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, that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of 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.”—The Declaration of Independence, Second Paragraph, 1776.
No oppression is so heavy or lasting as that which is inflicted by the perversion and exorbitance of legal authority—Joseph Addison (1672–1719), English essayist. Interesting Anecdotes, Memoirs, Allegories, Essays, and Poetical Fragments, “The Cruelty of Parental Tyranny” (1794)
Call me an emotional ninny, but the august words of the Declaration of Independence still bring a rush of excitement to me, whenever I read or hear them. I remember the first time that I ever heard them.
It was the Fourth of July, 1963. President Kennedy was in the White House, and I was at my great aunt and uncle's home in the country for a Fourth of July celebration with family and friends. One of the guests was Mr. George Uno, a gentleman artist who had been born in Japan, immigrated to this country around the turn of the century, and then became an American citizen. He had spent the Second World War in one of our country's internment camps., simply because he was born in Japan. Mr. Uno claimed that the real reason for this was, that as a die hard Republican, he had refused to say anything good about President Franklin Roosevelt.
We kids were excited that Fourth of July, because older family members had bought lots of sparklers, fountains, rockets and other fireworks. We had been promised that we would be able to use our sparklers (actually we used punk sticks) to set off one fountain or other major firework when it got dark—under the watchful eye of an adult, of course.
As dusk approached, we kids could barely contain our mounting excitement. We begged the adults to be given sparklers in the waning light. It was at this point, that Mr. Uno intervened.
He said that he could not allow us to start lighting the fireworks until we understood what both they and the holiday actually meant. He then proceeded to explain the history of the American Revolution to us, and told us how the Declaration of Independence came to be written, and about the sacrifices that members of the Continental Congress and Army made to ensure our liberty from George III and Great Britain. Then he quoted the first two paragraphs of the Declaration from memory, interspersing commentary about a word or phrase's meaning anytime one of us kids had a puzzled look on our face.
It is the only specific event I remember from that day.
Thomas Jefferson's Declaration of Independence is one of the finest examples of rhetoric (in the positive sense of that word) since Pericles' funeral oration. The immortal words of the first clause of the Declaration's second paragraph—“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...”—states even more succinctly than Jefferson's Age of Enlightenment predecessors (Montesquieu, Locke, Voltaire, and Rousseau) the theoretical basis for liberty. The next clause—“That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed”—postulates the moral foundation for self-governance by a nation's people.
So, what do these fine phrases mean? “We hold these truths to be self-evident,...” is the axiomatic basis for this paragraph's vision, just as Euclid's five postulates are the axiomatic basis for his geometry. “...[T]hat all Men are created equal,...” is the first postulate of Jefferson's philosophic system for the moral basis of human liberty.
Many people have difficulties with this statement, because they try to apply a physical model to a metaphysical concept. This postulate is not talking about physical, mental, or other material gifts or capabilities; rather, it is a challenge to all of humanity, stating that the circumstances of our lives—wealth, race, religion, philosophical creed, birth, parentage, etc.—should not affect the deep and abiding respect and care with which we treat each other.
Jefferson's second postulate of human liberty in the Declaration, “... that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness—“ is also problematic for some people.
What is the essential character of, and the basis for, these “unalienable Rights,” with which Jefferson argues that “...all men…are endowed [with] by their Creator...”?
In philosophical terms, the rights we possess as human beings are either “natural” or “positive.” Natural rights are intrinsic to us as human beings, existing, as Immanuel Kant would say, “a priori,” without proof. To be more precise, the dictionary defines a priori as: “Proceeding from a known or assumed cause to a necessarily related effect; deductive;” (The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Third Edition copyright © 1992 by Houghton Mifflin Company).
The rights of which Jefferson writes in the Declaration are natural rights, as evidenced by the way he crafts his statement in the document. The Declaration of Independence's second paragraph is a profoundly moral statement, that promulgates a deeply spiritual, and at the same time, humanistic view of mankind, and of humankind's relationships with one another. In other words, it is a statement of faith in the potential of humanity.