Can you fill in the blanks? “We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created ______, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are _______, ________, and the __________ of_______________.”
I’m guessing that almost all of you, no matter how young or how old, can fill in the blanks – with equal, Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. Why do you think this is so? It’s because these words, coming from the introduction to the Declaration of Independence, define who we are as a people. It is our national identity, something that every American has internalized.
These words of Thomas Jefferson are our national thesis or main idea statement and they are the spectacles from which we judge events both nationally and internationally.
I have taught the Declaration of Independence to high school-aged students for nearly 40 years. One thing I learned very early: You can’t tell most Americans to do anything. You have to ask them politely. Americans resist being told what to do because they believe deeply they are equal to all, even those in authority.
This national attitude goes back to the American Revolution and the Declaration of Independence. Americans have never reacted well to an authoritarian approach. King George the III’s demands that American colonists pay taxes without representation didn’t set well with the colonists and they revolted. That’s why Jefferson’s ringing words resonate so strongly with us.
I have found that many high school students get confused because they do not understand the term “equality.” To many of them it means that they have just as much authority and power as their teacher, their bosses or their parents. That’s not what equality means. We can be all equal under the law, but that is not saying there is no authority structure.
These terms – equality, life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness – come from a period of history called the Age of Reason or the Enlightenment of the late 18th century. The man who originated them was John Locke, an English philosopher and scientist. Actually, Locke originally used the terms “life, liberty, and estate” (property).
Jefferson changed the word estate to “pursuit of happiness” probably because of the influence of Sir William Blackstone, an English jurist living at the time. (Corwin, Edward. The Higher Law Background of American Constitutional Law: P. 78 FN.)
Locke had read the scientific theories of Sir Isaac Newton regarding the laws of physics, of light and gravity. Newton taught that there were Natural Laws that governed the universe. Locke went one step further and turned Natural Law into Natural Rights Theory. These ideas were that all humans, whether prince or pauper, were born equal at birth, their minds being like blank clay tablets or tabula rasa. Life experiences etched that blank clay tablet in different ways, making one person a king while another could grow up begging bread.
These Enlightenment ideas spread to France where they flowed yet again to the American colonies just before the American Revolution. These ideas formed the basis for what Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence and the reasons for our revolt against British tyranny.
We still hold to these Enlightenment values in the 21st century; they form the basis of our scientific skepticism and our reliance on observation and reason over faith to answer life’s deeper questions.
These Age of Reason ideas make us Americans who we are today, with a deep, almost religious regard for equality, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. These ideas are part of our national DNA. Pinch an American and he will react based upon these Declaration of Independence values.