I got thinking about the Declaration of Independence
in the course of human events in the course of talking with Sarah Hoyt about the USAian religion. (In her Darkship books, the memory of the United States has been suppressed, but an underground preserves it as the basis of their own religious beliefs.)
This is one of their holy texts, written by a man named Jefferson a long time ago:
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.
Let’s start with the first clause:
We hold these truths to be self-evident
Jefferson, along with most well-educated people at the time, was given a “classical education” — the trivium and quadrivium, along with languages and history. In particular, it almost always included Euclid’s Geometry; Jefferson we know read Locke and others, and almost certainly read Spinoza, who constructed his books very much like a geometry text. The point is that Jefferson, as one of the perfect examples of men of the Enlightenment, believed wholeheartedly in science and in, above all, reason, and Euclid was considered the epitome of reason.
If you read Book One of Euclid’s Elements you see some definitions and “common notions,” and then the five Postulates. Postulates, or axioms, are the starting point in a logical system; they are statements that are considered universally acceptable — or at least are accepted as statements from which deductions can be made. To Euclid, these are universal truths that are held to be self-evident and thus require no proof. (In modern logic, they no longer have to be self-evident, and can merely be interesting. But that’s a topic for another time.) So, we start out with “We state these basic beliefs so that our reasoning can be seen to be well-founded.”
The first of these is “that all men are created equal.” Remember that this is an axiom and not something that, in this context, is debatable. But what does this mean?
First of all, the word man, we must remember, was strictly understood in a generic sense as referring to the species. English speakers below a certain age don’t really grasp this, I think; there has been a whole lot of argument about it in the last few years.
So all men are created equal: huh? Jefferson was certainly as aware as anyone of differences in abilities, of the differences between male and female, of the differences that were purported to go with skin color, and yet he wrote that it was universal and self-evident that all men were created equal. But he explains it in the next clause.
that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights
This is how they’re created equal: each person has, inherent to their very existence, certain rights which can neither be taken away nor given away. We are all equal in this essential way.
that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
Now we’re getting to the juice, here. Jefferson — along with Franklin, George Mason, Tom Paine, and Voltaire — thought that John Locke was the most important political writer of his time. Locke famously said that government existed to preserve a citizen’s “life, liberty, and property.” There is a lot of debate among historians whether Jefferson really meant to reference Locke here. I think the debate is sort of silly: Locke wasn’t the only person to use a formula with “life, liberty, and…” but then Locke influenced most of those people too. Frankly, this whole clause would have done well with a footnote.
In any case, Jefferson added his own bit to this with “pursuit of Happiness.” Figuring this one out is a debate that apparently started sometime in June 1776. Still, I’m confident that Jefferson meant something definite here, if only we could figure out what it is.
In later years, Jefferson would declare himself an Epicurean, and I think there is a clue in that. The Epicureans were one of several branches of Greek philosophy that were also popular among educated Romans. To an Epicurean, “happiness” was a state the Greek Epicureans called ataraxia, (ἀταραξία). Ataraxia is a state of not being disturbed: Wikipedia has a nice definition, saying ataraxia is a “state of robust tranquility.” If I’m right, what Jefferson had in mind was that everyone had a right to pursue their own state of robust tranquility, and to make their own choices to pursue that, that no one else could gainsay.
“But they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree; and none shall make them afraid.”
That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,…
This was, very literally, a revolutionary statement: in fact, it’s the core of the argument. No Divine Right of Kings, no Subjects of the Crown: Free men and women consenting to grant certain powers to a government.
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 free to withdraw this consent whenever they feel the government is no longer acting to secure their rights.
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.
The rest of the Declaration, really, just expands on this by laying out the way that the Crown had ceased to ensure the rights of the Americans, and so had lost the consent of the governed.
It seems to me now that a lot of people in the government have forgotten this: that the reason the government exists is to secure our rights to Life, Liberty, and to order our own lives in the pursuit of Happiness. On this Fourth of July, we should remind them. It is time to treat the Constitution as the founders intended, to remind government they’re servants, not masters, and to return to our foundational document in such a way that it permits us best to ordain our life and liberty and pursue our happiness. For this we work, and thereunto we pledge our life, our fortune, and our sacred honor.”