As we soon head into the 4th of July, the most important holiday for the free world, we turn our attention to the mission statement of our country—the Declaration of Independence.
Twelve years ago, I went to Washington D.C. with my son Daniel. As part of this trip we visited the Jefferson Memorial. We stood and read all the wall panels with quotes from the Founding Father. As we concluded and were leaving, Daniel made a profound foundational connection regarding rights. He said to me, “Dad, did you read that? God who gave us life gave us liberty. Can the liberties of a nation be secure when we have removed the conviction that these liberties are the gift of God?” Then he said, “If God is the grantor of our liberties and rights then government cannot take them from us because they are unalienable and are a gift from a power higher than government!”
This was one of those seminal moments where an epiphany of thought laid foundational truths for his life. The importance of those same enduring principles of liberty for posterity and citizens was expressed earlier in correspondence from Jefferson himself to James Madison on August 30, 1823, “…cherish the principles of the instruments in the bosom of our own citizens: and it is a heavenly comfort to see that these principles are yet so strongly felt….I pray God that these principles may be eternal…” (Albert Ellery Bergh, ed., Collected Writings of Thomas Jefferson, v. XV, p. 464).
Inspired Truth Revealed
What are these eternal principles or truths? Where did they come from? According to Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence, they came from Nature and Nature’s God.
Jefferson was likely influenced by John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government in the terms “life” and “liberty,” however he substituted so eloquently the phrase “the pursuit of happiness” in lieu of the word “property” which was preferred by Locke. But, you may be wondering, are these terms synonymous? I argue that, yes, the pursuit of happiness may be defined as the liberty we possess to discover the good life for each of us.
One way to look at it may be that as we apply our genius and virtues upon property that we both create and improve, we find happiness. With that in mind, did Jefferson discover a new right or one that just builds on that of property? It appears this might be another way of expressing the term property, but in a broader context.
Rights Are Not Invented But Revealed
Jefferson commented that his role was to harmonize the political thinking of his day: “This was the object of the Declaration of Independence. Not to find out new principles, or new arguments, never before thought of, not merely to say things which had never been said before; but to place before mankind the common sense of the subject, in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent, and to justify ourselves in the independent stand we are compelled to take. Neither aiming at originality of principle or sentiment, nor yet copied from any particular and previous writing, it was intended to be an expression of the American mind, and to give to that expression the proper tone and spirit called for by the occasion. All its authority rests then on the harmonizing sentiments of the day, whether expressed in conversation, in letters, printed essays, or in the elementary books of public right, as Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney, etc.” (Albert Ellery Bergh, ed., Collected Writings of Thomas Jefferson, v. XVI, p. 118).
But what exactly were these ancient rights? There are a multitude of rights that exist, some of which include the freedoms of religion, speech, the press, assembly, self-defense, self-government, free conscience, etc.—but all liberties may be conceived as the consequence of the three greatest rights which are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Do not forget, however, that included in that concept is the reciprocal—the violation of these rights justifies a penance, punishment, or forfeiture of such liberty upon the perpetrator. According to John Locke in Two Treatises of Government, these natural rights actually precede government. Therefore, when people create government, it is the duty of government to find the law in nature. For nature is the foundation of all law (William Ebenstein, Great Political Thinkers, pp. 430, 444).
“True law is defined by Cicero ‘As right reason in agreement with nature’ (W. Cleon Skousen, The 5,000 Year Leap, p. 141). Indeed, as long as this “nature” includes the fundamental concept that these rights exist independent of man’s law and are gifts from the Creator to which each citizen is ultimately held accountable, this agreement with Nature’s God is in force and the real guarantor of true freedom.
The True and Divine Role of Government
We must go into the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence to find the purpose of why people coalesce and agree to come together to form government in the first place. Jefferson states that it is most likely to further the cause of safety and happiness. As Cicero points out in The Republic and The Laws, “For there is really no other occupation in which human virtue approaches more closely the august function of the gods than that of founding new States or preserving those already in existence” (William Ebenstein, Great Political Thinkers, p. 147).
When we form government by the consent of the governed, or voting, we delegate authority to government agencies such as the military, police, firemen, etc. to keep our person and property protected. This provides our communities with safety so we can pursue happiness. What needs safeguarding? Our lives. Absent this basic protection, we would have little time to do anything other than forage for food and protect our lives and property.
Where Happiness is Found
Happiness is more fully achieved by combining time, labor, and liberty to create goodness and beauty. Labor then creates property and happiness as we put our special virtue, excellence or imprint on our posterity, professions, and property as stewards. These three broad rights are self-evident under the umbrella of all men being created equal. Equality is not the provision of granting equal things to all, but the establishment of three untransferable endowments or gifts from the Creator: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. These three rights are then protected by three powers delegated by people to government: 1) to create or make laws, 2) to judge laws and 3) to execute laws. “For the Lord is our judge, the Lord is our lawgiver, the Lord is our king; he will save us” (Isaiah 33:22 KJV). The ancients tell us if two or more of these three powers ever become concentrated into the hands of one person or body, tyranny or despotism is the likely outcome.
The Declaration of Independence is our birthright. It is our declaration of authority from the highest of all powers. It is the mission statement, vision, and outcome to the highest political end—liberty. The greatest test of good government is conformity to the principles of the highest of all legislators as Jefferson alludes to four times in the document: The Laws of Nature and “Nature’s God,” being endowed by the “Creator” with unalienable rights, appealing to the “Supreme Judge” for authority, and the protection of “divine Providence.” That is why, without hesitation, the Founders and their generation felt they could pledge their “Lives, Fortunes, and sacred Honor” to this Divine cause.