Saturday, July 4, 2009

Are they really self-evident?

Consider these words:
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. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.
They are, of course, from The Declaration of Independence. It's quite an extraordinary document, one well worth reading every now and again - say, on Independence Day.

They say that "all men" (and one can only wish that "all" were meant to include people of color, including those who were enslaved, and that "men" were intended to include women) "are created equal" which really leaves no room for invidious discrimination.

They say that those equal men have certain rights that are "unalienable," that is, they cannot be alienated or taken away. They say that among the unalienable rights are "Life, Liberty, and the pursuit [not the attainment, however, since that's beyond guarantee] of Happiness." They say that government exists "to secure these rights."

And they say, and these are amazing words today, but we must remember that the landed gentry who signed this document were not just the establishment - they were an establishment teeming with enlightenment ideals and with revolutionary ardor, they say that when governments don't do that job, then it is the right and the duty of the people to overthrow the government. Revolution is obligatory.

So: The Declaration says that government cannot take away the life of a citizen (not a subject, since it is government established by the people - a bottom up, not top down system) but must secure it. No death penalty. Period. (They didn't mean that, of course, though Jefferson was generally opposed to the death penalty.) No encroachments on "liberty," though that's more difficult since "liberty" is less clear a term than "life" (which has its own ambiguity - consider abortion) and besides freedoms can collide and something will have to give. And no interference generally with people's activities. That last is something like what Justice Brandeis said (in dissent, alas) in Olmstead v. United States:
The makers of our Constitution undertook to secure conditions favorable to the pursuit of happiness. They recognized the significance of man's spiritual nature, of his feelings, and of his intellect. They knew that only a part of the pain, pleasure and satisfactions of life are to be found in material things. They sought to protect Americans in their beliefs, their thoughts, their emotions and their sensations. They conferred, as against the Government, the right to be let alone -- the most comprehensive of rights, and the right most valued by civilized men.
As Brandeis understood the goal, so he understood the threat:
Experience should teach us to be most on our guard to protect liberty when the Government's purposes are beneficent. Men born to freedom are naturally alert to repel invasion of their liberty by evil-minded rulers. The greatest dangers to liberty lurk in insidious encroachment by men of zeal, well meaning but without understanding.
Brandeis understood that. Those revolutionary land and slave owners who signed the Declaration understood it viscerally if not literally.

It's a good day, this 4th of July, to recall all of that. But we need, too, to remember that the Declaration is not law. The Constitution is. And where the Declaration is a campaign speech for overthrow of tyranny, the Constitution is what they put in its place.

My seventh grade history teacher told us (and this is probably the only specific thing I remember from the class) that "Democracy is the system that allows you to choose your dictator."

Happy Independence Day!!

1 comment:

  1. Where was Brandeis on Private Property Rights which is the bedrock of our Republic? Answer: Nowhere. Anyone who supported the creation of the Federal Reserve System, the largest criminal enterprise of the last 100 years, is a criminal himself. Sorry Louis, but you don't cut it as a great Justice.