We know these words well: “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.” They first appear with respect to the United States in our document entitled “The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America.” Later, these concepts would be further affirmed in our United States Constitution. But what does it really mean?
The concept is older that our country. It was largely inspired by John Locke whose philosophy is one of the principal sources often referenced on this topic.1[https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Locke] John Locke was an English philosopher and physician, widely regarded as one of the most influential of Enlightenment thinkers and commonly known as the “Father of Liberalism”. Considered one of the first of the British empiricists. Empiricists believed in the theory that all knowledge is based on experience derived from the senses. John Locke would be exiled from England 1683 for his radical views. In about 1680, Locke wrote:
“The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it, which obliges every one: and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind, who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions… (and) when his own preservation comes not in competition, ought he, as much as he can, to preserve the rest of mankind, and may not, unless it be to do justice on an offender, take away, or impair the life, or what tends to the preservation of the life, the liberty, health, limb, or goods of another.”
Another important influence on our freedoms was the Virginia Declaration of Rights written by George Mason and passed on June 12, 1776. It reads:
“That all men are by nature equally free and independent and have certain inherent rights, of which, when they enter into a state of society, they cannot, by any compact, deprive or divest their posterity; namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.”
Decomposition of “Life, Liberty and Happiness”
When something is self-evident, it means that the circumstances are so obvious that we can see them without the help and guidance of others. There is something, imparted inside each human being, that recognizes the truth of these rights. God, at the very moment of creation, not only established natural laws such as the maximum speed of light but humanity, the right to life, freedom, and even the blessings of having a joyful heart. God is within each of us waiting to be discovered through common sense.
Equality is described here at the point of creation. It does not go on to define a necessity for equality to exist at any later state in time. Think of two seeds, both created equally, ready to sprout into two plants. To one, is given fertile soil, water, warmth, light and care. To the other, poor soil, inconsistent care and watering. What will these two identical seeds both become? From the same equal seeds sprout two dramatically different plants. One plant can serve the world, the other just drains from the world resources and bears no fruit. The same is true of human life. Our forefathers recognized that all life must be given the opportunity for nurturing and care. Equality produces abundant lives when properly nurtured by society. Once established abundant lives serve others and continue to nourish our world.
To Endow something is to set something up, typically to establish and fund something, that will continue on indefinitely. The foundation for all human understanding must then be to believe that everything, matter, light, life even the vastness of the universe comes from a power greater than ourselves. Our God, therefore, is the only one who can endow these certain rights that cannot ever be rescinded by mankind. Why, because these are God’s rights, unalienable rights to hand to humanity through His generous grace.
Unalienable and inalienable are the same term. It means that something is not transferable to another or cannot be taken away or denied. In the US Constitution, certain freedoms, and liberties are considered having inalienable principles and values. They cannot be removed and are secured through our Bill of Rights. We do not live in a “Majority Rules” world nor do we live in a “The Spoils Go to the Victor” world. The rights that are defined here go to the weak, poor and helpless as well as the rich, strong and famous.
Life is what mankind does not create but can only nurture or destroy. This is the one right granted directly to the individual, the right to life. Whether old, young or yet to be born, the right to life exists, granted by directly by God. Like seeds, you can nurture or deprive your life of the nutrients it needs. This is your freedom. The assurance you are being given in our Constitution is that no one else has the right to terminate your life. Violence, war, drugs, poverty exist because of the free will granted to humanity at creation. Greed, corruption, the lust for power are destructive forces in our world. They do not and should not, however, remove your right, anyone’s right to life.
Liberty is at the heart of our country’s foundation. Subservient to a king, our early colonies labored under the heavy hand of tyranny. Liberty is the state of being free within society from oppressive restrictions imposed by authority on one’s way of life, behavior, or because of political views. Liberty is not free and does not come without risks. When rights and liberties are relinquished, they are hard to regain. Liberty can never be owned by anyone or any group. Liberty is personal, it is your right to exist, provided that the rights and liberties of others are not infringed.
The pursuit of happiness is the most misunderstood right we have. The problem isn’t with the pursuit, but how a person defines happiness. During the formation of our country, you would have found the general attitude as noted in The Massachusetts Constitution of 1780 affirming that
“the happiness of a people and the good order and preservation of civil government essentially depend upon piety, religion and morality, and . . . these cannot be generally diffused through a community but by the institution of the public worship of God and of public instructions in piety, religion and morality.”
Disappointment can come when we succumb to the world’s philosophy of consumption. Happiness is not who has the most, the best things, enough things and it is not about who dies with the most toys. The “pursuit of happiness” being an inalienable right, is one that you can not, should not ever give away and one right that our government has been tasked to protect. It suggests a relationship between government and humanity’s moral ends that are always in conflict, if not in outright contradiction. God is involved!
Should government take away from those with plenty to give to those with little because it is morally right? While history documents this struggle, one point clearly evolves to give clarity to happiness: Happiness must be yours to discover and yours to secure. No government, no other people can tell you how to be happy. We are expected to humanely punish the law breakers but more importantly, to create and enforce fair and just laws. God is not asking for the wealth of our great nation, He is asking for its hearts. God has already told us what He wants of us, act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with Him.