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For the week of July 4 through July 11, 2000

Reflecting on the uniqueness of the Declaration on July 4th

Commentary by ADAM TANOUS


We, as a society, have an obligation to be vigilant in rectifying imbalances and in erasing attitudes of bias that continue to arise.


It took Thomas Jefferson little more than two weeks to compose the Declaration of Independence. Two hundred and twenty-six years after Jefferson’s editors, Ben Franklin and John Adams, put the final touches on the document, we as a people are still grappling with the concepts, both literal and metaphorical, that formalized the birth of a nation.

The Declaration explicitly puts forward two fundamental ideas, both of which can be attributed to John Locke’s 17th century book "Two Treatises of Government."

The Declaration proper begins with the following famous lines:

"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..."

The first premise—that not only are all people created equal but that we are born with certain rights—was a profound deviation from hundreds of years of monarchism. Jefferson and the Continental Congress were affirming three inherent rights, "Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness."

To paraphrase, this meant that individuals were entitled to the right to defend oneself against others or even government, the right to political equality and the right to own and safeguard property. Jefferson was not saying that governments conferred rights on people but rather that equality and rights actually precede government. They are as fundamental to a person born in this land as is his or her eye color.

The second principle laid down by Jefferson is predicated upon the first, namely that governments are formed by the people solely for the protection of these rights. I would suspect that most people today have a different view of what government’s function is.

More often than not, I think government is perceived not as an entity to protect rights but as an obstacle to them. I would suggest that this is especially true for racial minorities and Americans at the bottom of the economic scale.

Unfortunately, when it comes to rights, perception becomes reality. In other words, if one doesn’t feel equal to others or secure in his rights then he is neither. We, as a society, have an obligation to be vigilant in rectifying imbalances and in erasing attitudes of bias that continue to arise.

On a symbolic or metaphorical level, Jefferson and the Continental Congress were introducing to the world two wholly new political concepts. First, by his very definition of government—that it was created by and for the protection of the people—Jefferson was positing the power of a plurality of voices in deciding the fate of our society. The wisdom of many was deemed by Jefferson to be the most effective way of moving humankind forward. This was a concept counter to the entire history of political systems. Previous systems had always entrusted a single person to make political decisions.

A second symbolic effect of the Declaration was it signaled to the world that, if accompanied with sound reasoning, acts of defiance were justified. The American experience became a light of hope for peoples oppressed by other governments. It acknowledged the right to defy rulers—not for trivial reasons—but in cases of true injustice. In this way it codified a path out of oppression and into political freedom and opportunity.

While we as a nation have done pretty well protecting those fundamental rights and providing a model for other societies, by no means have we fully realized the dream of the Founding Fathers. If one doubts this, he need only look at death sentencing as a function of race or racial profiling; or the economic disparities in our society.

If our system, per se, has an Achilles heel it is that political equality is becoming increasingly determined by economic factors. It is very difficult to disentangle economic forces from political choice. In other words, we have not very gracefully navigated the murky waters where money, free speech, and political equality come together.

What we have done, though, is admirable. Even in the short span of my lifetime we have proven our hybrid of capitalism and democracy to be the most effective, if not morally justifiable, system of organizing a society. We have turned over the fate of our lives and world to its inhabitants.

By believing in the diversity of religion, race, and nationality we have given our civilization the best chance for overcoming the challenges during our time on earth. Our hope is wholly dependent upon the wisdom and compassion of the masses. This is good news. We have a country rich with talent. By integrating the thoughts, feelings and perceptions of 273 million people we gain a vision of the future much clearer than any one great leader could provide.

 

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