A Return to Our Roots
"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...."
I hope you recognize these words, but I'm afraid that our politicians, judges and the vast majority of citizens of the United States don't really understand them. It seems quite clear and straightforward, but in today's pervasive atmosphere of intolerance and extremism, it's obvious that the elected officials of our nation and a majority of the public often don't have a clue as to the meaning and intent of these words. So let's break it down line by line.
"We hold these truths to be self-evident,..." means that the statements that follow need not be proven. They are so obvious that they cannot be argued against using reason and logic.
"...that all men are created equal,..." means that every human being in this country has the same rights. All are equal in the eyes of the law. "All men" does not mean just white, heterosexual, Christian males. It includes women, African-Americans, Asian-Americans, Native Americans, Hispanics, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, atheists, Satanists, agnostics, spiritualists, Wiccans, Druids, shamans, humanists, gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgenders. Some would even say that this includes every human being since the statement does not say "all citizens" but "all men." Human rights activists around the world are fighting to gain the same rights for everyone that we here in America often take for granted.
"...that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights,..."
Please note here the use of the words "their Creator." History shows us that the founding fathers spent a great deal of time with the wording of this document and the subsequent Constitution and Bill of Rights. Their choice of words was intentional and deliberate. They intentionally chose NOT to use God, Allah, Krishna, Jesus Christ, Wakan Tanka, the Great Spirit or any of the other thousands of names for a specific deity. "[T]heir" was a conscious choice by our founding fathers to allow each and every individual to define their own "Creator".
"Creator" was also a conscious choice and, contrary to what seems to be popular opinion, does not imply deity or supernatural abilities. Nature creates— look at the Grand Canyon. Chance creates— look at the winners of the big jackpots in lotteries or at the gaming tables of Las Vegas. Natural disasters (something we often view as "bad") create— floods dump fresh silt on the flood plains to replenish depleted nutrients and create a better soil for growing crops. Even destruction creates— the cones of the Lodgepole pine need exposure to the high temperatures of forest fires before they open and release new seeds creating new growth.
However we define our creator, our very existence endows us with certain unalienable rights. Rights that cannot be separated from us and are part of our very being. The rights we have are not bestowed upon us by any nation, any state, any government, any law or any individual and cannot legally or justly be taken away by any nation, any state, any government, any law or any individual. They are ours by virtue of the fact that we are living, breathing human beings.
"...that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness...."
Note the use of the words "among these", signifying that the three listed are not the only unalienable rights that we have. "Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" means that each of us has the freedom— the liberty— to live our life in whatever manner we see fit in pursuit of whatever we believe will make us happy. What most people don't remember, however, is that with every unalienable right comes the unalienable responsibility to respect everyone else's unalienable rights. This means voluntarily limiting our actions so they don't interfere with another's right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. We cannot falsely scream "fire" in a crowded theater simply because we have the right to free speech. Our freedom of speech does not give us the right to place others' lives in danger from the resulting panic of our falsehood. In fact, the unalienable right to free speech gives us the unalienable responsibility to make sure that what we say does not interfere with another's right to live his/her life as he/she sees fit. The founding fathers, in their infinite wisdom, realized that not everyone would accept their unalienable responsibility, so they included the next line.
"... —That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men,..." Read that line again, please. "... —That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men,..." This is saying that governments are brought into existence with the primary— some might even say sole— purpose of protecting every individual's right to live his/her life as he/she sees fit. I'm sure you've heard the expression "A few bad apples spoil the bunch." Such is the case with human beings as well. Those who refuse to accept their unalienable responsibility are the reason that governments must exist. They exist to create laws that allow society to remove from its midst those who ignore their responsibility to respect the right of every individual to live his/her life as he/she sees fit. Therefore, the litmus test for any law governing human behavior should be, "Does this law protect the right of every individual to live his/her life as he/she sees fit?" If the answer is "Yes", then the law is a valid law. If the answer is "No", then the law is invalid.1
"...deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,..." means that the people tell the government what it can and cannot do outside of its primary role of protecting the rights of every individual to live his/her life as he/she sees fit. We, the people, grant the government the right to create laws for taxation to provide other services like road maintenance, public schools, etc. We, the people, give the government the right to enact laws regulating business beyond honest transactions (since dishonest transactions are a form of theft, which would be covered under the laws governing human behavior.) Unfortunately, we have become so used to the government telling us what we can and cannot do that we seem to have forgotten that we are the ones in charge, not the government. Abraham Lincoln phrased this in another way: "...government of the people, by the people, for the people...."
"That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends,..." Remember, "these ends" means ensuring every individual's right to live his/her life as he/she sees fit and whatever other powers the people have bestowed upon the government.
"...it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it,..." means that the people have the right to rebel against the government, indeed, even to dismantle it if the government interferes with the right of the people to live their lives as they see fit or otherwise abuses the power they have been given by the people.
"...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...." means that the people, not the government, determines what actions the government will take to protect them. This makes laws like the civil-rights-destroying and grossly misnamed US PATRIOT Act absolutely and utterly invalid. This statement also emphasizes the "pursuit of happiness"— or in other words, the right of the people to live their life as they see fit.
While many correctly argue that the Declaration of Independence is not legally binding, to deny that this important document is relevant is an earmark of ignorance. In this document, the founding father's lay out why they want to form a new nation and what ideals are important to that new nation. And at the core of that document, indeed the very purpose for creating a new nation, is the right of every individual to live his/her life as he/she sees fit. The principles set forth in the Declaration of Independence are the cornerstones of the US Constitution and Bill of Rights.
It is imperative that the lawmakers and the judges of this nation keep this in mind not only when writing laws but when determining the constitutionality of any given law. Any law that cannot pass the litmus test of protecting every individual's right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness should be overturned.
The enormity of this task— no, this obligation— with respect to our legislative and judicial system can be glimpsed by considering some of the legal issues that would be affected. Please bear in mind that the law must protect children— even from their own parents— until they reach maturity. Therefore changes in the law are necessary with respect to consenting adults. (Which is not to suggest that laws protecting children are perfect— far from it. But that's another article altogether.)
And there are many others.
The Constitution of the United States (including the Bill of Rights and subsequent amendments to the Constitution) was written (and has been updated) to fulfill the goals of the founding fathers as expressed in the Declaration of Independence. It is the government's job to define legality, not morality. For example, laws prohibiting murder say nothing about whether it is moral (right) or immoral (wrong). The sole purpose of such laws is to protect the right of every individual to be free to live his/her life as he/she sees fit from anyone who does not respect that right. Such laws say only whether the act of murder is legal or illegal. If an individual wishes to assign morality to such laws as well as legality, that is his/her right. But that same individual does not have the right to insist that everyone else accept his/her ideas of what is moral (right) or immoral (wrong).
The argument exists that because we live in a democracy, if the majority wants a law that defines morality (for example, banning gay marriage) then the majority is entitled to enact such a law. This argument is based on a false premise: that we live in a democracy. A true democracy means that the majority rules always. If the majority of people in this country wanted to return to the days of slavery, that is what would happen. In a democracy, the rights of the majority override the rights of the individual.
The founding fathers' clear intent was to protect the rights of every individual and to this end, they set up our nation to be a constitutional republic. In a constitutional republic, the majority rules only as long as it does not violate the rights of even one individual to live his/her life as he/she sees fit. In a constitutional republic, the rights of the individual are protected not only from the government and from other individuals but also from the will of the majority.
The US government has long been straying from the principles set down by our founding fathers, but since 9/11, we've been rocketing towards a fascist theocracy. Now it is up to us, the people, to say, "Enough!" We must take back that which is rightfully ours: control of the behemoth called government. The task is daunting, but no more daunting than that faced by the founding fathers and early citizens of a brand new experiment in freedom called the United States of America.
Let us return our nation to the path envisioned by the early leaders: liberty and justice for all.
Let us turn our backs on the corporate special interests that are buying up politicians and their votes right and left.
Let us renounce the imperialistic forays of this current misadministration.
Let us once again become a shining light to the rest of the world as to what is possible when the people of a nation work together to teach respect and tolerance and equality.
1Let's take a few examples.
It is illegal to murder. Does this protect the right of every individual to live his/her life as he/she sees fit? Absolutely. To allow someone to murder another is to allow them to interfere in how the victim lives his/her life. Therefore it is a valid law.
It is illegal to drive under the influence of alcohol or drugs. Does this protect the right of every individual to live his/her life as he/she sees fit? This one may not be so obvious, but the answer is still "Yes." Living has inherent risks of dying. But a driver under the influence of alcohol or drugs increases that risk without the permission or consent of those whom he/she passes while operating a motor vehicle. In fact, in far too many cases, the driver under the influence takes the life of those whom he/she passes while operating a motor vehicle. Therefore, it is a valid law.
In many places, it is illegal to smoke in public places. Does this protect the right of every individual to live his/her life as he/she sees fit? Try looking at it this way. Does this law prevent someone from smoking? Or does it merely prevent them from smoking where that smoke will adversely affect others? Since anyone can smoke as long as no one else has to breathe the smoke against his/her will, then such laws are valid.
It is illegal for two people of the same gender to marry in forty-nine of the fifty states. Does this protect the right of every individual to live his/her life as he/she sees fit? Absolutely not. In fact, it directly infringes on the rights of gay, lesbians, bisexuals and transgendereds who want to marry the one they love. Looked at another way, allowing gays to marry does not stop anyone else from getting married. Therefore it is an invalid law.
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