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. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.
--The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America
They're hard words to live by. Jefferson, who wrote them (with some later editing by committee), had trouble living by them, seeing his role in personally denying hundreds of people their inalienable right to liberty. Indeed, many of those who signed the declaration, people who took them very seriously indeed (the pledge of their lives, fortunes and sacred honors was not simply a rhetorical flourish, since they could have been hung if they'd lost the war), had trouble taking them seriously enough.
But it was hardly the only time. When Elizabeth Cady Stanton repeated those words, adding only a few self-evident edits ("all men and women are created equal"), it took decades for her to be taken seriously enough. When Ho Chi Min said those words (in Vietnamese) in saying that his colonized people also wanted to "dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them", we did not take him seriously enough, and sent troops to aid his colonizers (who had, ironically, themselves aided us when we were the colonized).
And today, our government is threatening the life and liberty and pursuits of happiness of its citizens (not to mention its non-citizens: and after all those inalienable rights are due to all men and all women, not simply to American citizens), but somehow, we don't take those rights seriously, or the idea that governments derive just powers only from consent of the governed, and only to protect those rights, seriously enough.
Yet those words, written in haste by a slaveowner, derived from commonplaces of enlightened thought of his day, edited by a committee and passed hurriedly so they could return to the managing of a war, those words remain worthy of being taken seriously. The words were larger and better than he or they meant; larger and better than he or they knew; and larger and better than we have yet fully and truly grasped. Indeed, the question we should continually ask our government -- and ourselves -- is whether we are acting worthy of them.
Happy July 4, everyone.
(Reposted from 2010.)