In the drafts of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson wrote the words “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”. During the years leading up to the American Revolution, thinkers on both sides of the Atlantic considered the meaning of life, liberty, and property, but Jefferson and the drafters of the Declaration preferred “pursuit of happiness”. They understood marketing to the masses. These words were relatively new to so many people, conceptual at best, yet they caused an inner stir in the hearts of so many.
Too many throw out the founding documents and critical thinking of the 18th Century with 21st Century perspective and historical ignorance. Many find it ironic that Thomas Jefferson and so many of the signers of the Declaration of Independence wrote words about freedom when they themselves ‘owned’ other men in the form of slavery. Using 20/20 judgment, they miss the point and the importance of those crucial words. Yes, Thomas Jefferson and so many others, including the beloved George Washington, owned slaves, but they still strongly believed in the words bantered about by so many at the time. The true concept of freedom and self-determination were nascent beliefs socially, so foreign to the views of a God-appointed (or power-appointed) sovereign, with most of the world designated to serf status. The 18th Century thinkers’ blind spots on the full meaning of freedom should not detract from the importance of those inspired words found in the Declaration of Independence. We would be foolish to ignore them simply because of the flaws of the authors.
The key point of the phrase “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” or “life, liberty, and property” is that the three parts are inseparable components of freedom. First, in receiving the gift of life, in whatever form, we must remember that it is a gift, but ours alone. No one can or should be able to take it from you, and no one (except in part your parents) can take credit for your life. Second, a full exercise of liberty is the power to direct that life, to determine how we spend our time, what we will enjoy, what talents we will develop (or not), and how productive we will be. Life is relatively meaningless if we are unable to direct it, to determine our own course, and choose what that life means. In the former Soviet Union, government ‘talent scouts’ tracked young children to see who was worthy to dedicate their athletic or academic ability to the Motherland, or who was worthy of a menial job at Chernobyl. Soviet citizens did not enjoy freedom, even if they were national heroes on the hockey team. Lastly, the pursuit of happiness or property are solely manifestations of our decisions and efforts. If we have property, it is because of our efforts to secure property. If we own anything, or have developed any talents and any spoils for our efforts, they are demonstrations of an applied life and corresponding decisions. All three of them together represent ‘freedom’. If I wrongly keep someone in prison for life, is it really their life? If I force a budding artist to become an astronaut or a ditch digger, is it really their life? If we take away the life of another, do they have any liberty to act as they see fit? If I steal from another or tax them without ‘representation’, do they really have life and liberty?
If we separate someone from their life, liberty or property without due process and without considering THEIR freedom, we are going against the ideals that have kept this nation great for all this time. If we take away any component of freedom, then we start down a slippery slope that leads us back to the ugliness of slavery, tyranny, and a world without freedom. We would do wise as individuals to fiercely protect not only our life, liberty and pursuit of happiness, but that of others.
Just a thought.