Thomas Jefferson, a man whose personal motto was “Rebellion to tyranny is obedience to God,” defined it as well as anyone ever has 240 years ago in the Declaration of Independence.
“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.”
Words so powerful they’ve lived through the ages, recited countless times in nations around the world in their respective fights for freedom, from Vietnam and China to Poland and Czechoslovakia. Wherever people long to live free, Jefferson’s words are most often on their lips.
During the 1989 democratic revolutions sweeping the globe, in the Czech city of Prague, a common worker, tired of decades of Soviet oppression, rose at a meeting and quoted Jefferson’s Declaration, then called on his fellow countrymen to lay claim to their God-given liberties. “Americans understood these rights more than 200 years ago,” said Zdenek Janicek. “We are only now learning to believe that we are entitled to the same rights.”
Americans certainly did understand those rights 200 years ago, as liberty was proclaimed from church houses to state houses across the burgeoning new country. “In a state of nature men are equal,” said Pastor Gad Hitchcock in a rousing sermon in Massachusetts in 1774, “exactly on a par in regard to authority: each one is a law to himself, having the law of God, the sole rule of conduct, written on his heart.”
Two years later, in Virginia’s own Bill of Rights, author George Mason defined American rights as similarly as Jefferson.
“That all men are by nature equally free and independent, and have certain inherent rights, of which, when they enter into a state of society, they cannot, by any compact, deprive or divest their posterity; namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.”
As a nation we neither speak in those terms nor do we continue to think that way. We certainly did 200 years ago, but no longer.
The fires that stirred the hearts of men in 1776 appear nearly extinguished today. It seems more and more of our fellow countrymen want to blindly follow the daily dictates of petty politicians than live in a state of true liberty, free of any artificial and political restraints.
But to truly preserve liberty we must fight for it.
Soon after the Revolutionary War, the Founding Fathers created the Constitution. It served them well, but amendments were needed to clarify the existence of rights and protections. They were not fabricated to create rights since they existed before the drafting of the Constitution. Instead, each was written to expressly limit the government’s power, while protecting individual liberties. The first ten amendments became the Bill of Rights. This week marks the anniversary of the date in 1791 on which they were ratified and became law.
Just like our ancestors, we must be jealous guardians of all our God-given freedoms, whether our rights to free speech and other forms of expression or due process protections in the criminal justice system. A police state and more power in the hands of government, for any reason, is never the answer to societal problems, even though more and more of our people find such a future appealing.
As Benjamin Franklin once said,
“Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”
But, as true Americans, we must also defend the same rights of those with whom we disagree. For if we do not then, it might be our cherished freedoms that are next on the chopping block.
For it is the very concept of essential liberty, as Dr. Franklin put it, which remains forever enshrined in our Bill of Rights, which were ratified by the States 225 years ago on December 15, 1791.
It is the spirit of our Revolution and the main reason early Americans decided to go to war with the world’s superpower. Our liberties should be protected at all costs, for to diminish it is to trash the reputations of those who pledged their “lives, fortunes, and sacred honor” to secure it for all of us.
Jefferson, who penned those eloquent words so many years ago, hoped that an American victory would create not a conquering, despotic empire, as European nations were then constructing and expanding, but what he called “an empire of liberty.”
May we as a country never forget his great vision, work to preserve our liberties for our children and their children, and never turn toward that dangerous path upon which so many nations traveled before their ultimate destruction.
May the sacred fire of liberty always be in our hearts.