I am writing this on the Fourth of July, so it is no wonder I am thinking of the 1300 words that set the course of our destiny 236 years ago. That Declaration, which ended with a pledge by each of the 56 signers to each other of their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor had no parallel before it.
They clearly stated there are absolute truths set by the laws of nature and of nature’s God entitling human beings to certain rights. The signers made it clear the government’s responsibility is to make sure those rights are secure.
In securing our rights, the people ought to have a say in what laws are enacted; and only God can be trusted to hold all the power, so power ought to be divided up among a number of people as a protection against misuse of power. Thirdly, the power of the government ought to be limited so that the governed could manage to have the ultimate say.
Those rights enumerated are the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness - not happiness itself, but the pursuit thereof.
It appears all of these rights are not as clear-cut as they once seemed. Over time we have come to define them in multiple ways. For good or evil, we hold the right to end life through capital punishment while the debate continues about when life actually begins and is worthy of protection.
What is happiness to one is sin to another, and boundaries are constantly shifting. We try to discern the consequences of the behaviors of happiness-seekers; and in order to protect others we define the limits of such behaviors: i.e. setting fires may make one very happy but burning down someone’s home cannot be tolerated.
We loosely interchange the word “liberty” with “freedom.” While similar, liberty is a two-sided coin: freedom to exercise self-determination independent of fate or necessity, as well as freedom from subjugation to the arbitrary or capricious will of a government or ruler. Arbitrary is the important word here. Once again, a civil society must have boundaries that limit freedom to do harm to others while not being dominated by governmental whim or fancy.
Interestingly, the signers of the Declaration of Independence further said when governments become despotic and tyrannical the people governed have not just a right but also a duty to throw off such government. However, this should not be done lightly for passing fads. They also said human beings become accustomed to the way things are and are willing to suffer a long time before an unaccountable, oppressive, capricious, even cruel and violent government is no longer tolerable.
It took 100 years and 26 grievances for grumbling to turn to action declaring the Colonies ought to be free of the tyranny and capriciousness of the English king. It is our endowment that they were moved to such action and the messy business of creating a strong and effective republic. Let us be thankful for our inheritance.
Evelyn King is a preaching elder at the Community Presbyterian Church with graduate work in values education from San Francisco Theological Seminary and a BA in psychology/social science. She is a past director of the Healy Senior Center and the facilitator of senior fitness exercise.