“We Hold These Truths . . .”
“ . . . to be self-evident,” goes the famous line in the Declaration of Independence that set off the American Revolution. It was a bold statement of belief for that time in history, and even today it represents an idea that is not universally held by all rational people. We who have grown up in this country can only with difficulty imagine a contrasting set of beliefs.
“That all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights. Among these rights are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” The words feel good to us. Even though each of them could be subject to different interpretations as to what they mean, exactly, in particular circumstances, they provide us with a grand vision of what it means to be a human being. As a people, we would not easily give up this vision. Most of our laws written since the words were first penned by Thomas Jefferson are intended to specify in detail what we mean by them. Naturally, there are differences of opinion about the details, and especially whether they mean today what they meant in 1776.
In this so-called “post-modern era,” many people have a different way of seeing the world. Because we have witnessed the arrogance of power in international relations and in racial and ethnic differences, it’s become fashionable to question the formerly-held notion of “self-evident.” It used to be assumed, among some people, that certain religious beliefs were somehow “better” than others; it used to be assumed that certain ethnic groups were more privileged; it used to be assumed that men were more capable in important ways than women, and that they should have more say in how society ought to be run. In rejecting the validity of these assumptions, we point to the self-evident rights outlined in the Declaration of Independence. We don’t explicitly challenge the meanings of the words as they were held by the men who wrote them, but we apply “more enlightened” meanings as they appear to us today.
Not that no one in 1776 believed that “all men are created equal” means “all women” as well, or that slaves ought to be included in “all men.” Many did, including some who were instrumental in declaring those “self-evident truths.” Today, the logical implications of the Declaration are perhaps recognized by more of us, enough to make a broader reading “mainstream.”
However, as we interact more and more with other cultures, we find ourselves in a dilemma: how do we acknowledge the right of all people to live according to their own moral and political truths, and still hold to the truths we have come to accept for ourselves? For example, in our government’s economically-driven adventures in the Middle East, how ought we treat other cultures’ assumptions about women, or slavery, or religious and ethnic differences? Or democracy itself, for that matter?
The arrogance of power again: a hundred years ago, we entered into the First World War “to make the world safe for democracy.” Sixty years ago, we did the same thing, full of our conviction that we were on the “right side.” In fact, every war we have fought has been with the idea that we were somehow saving the world for our ideals. This is a long way from the declaration by our founders that we were simply taking these rights for ourselves. At that time we weren’t in a position to do much more.
The fact is that the words “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” aren’t found in many places outside of our society. The 1947 Constitution of Japan contains those words. Other countries have chosen comparable phrases in their basic governmental documents. “Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité” (liberty, equality, fraternity) was the rallying cry for the French Revolution, and “peace, order and good government” is written into Canada’s confederation document. Most nations have mottos, which presumably reflect basic ideals of their people. But even with the ambiguity of “pursuit of happiness,” the explicit nature of our “unalienable rights” as expressed in the Declaration of Independence—and echoed so eloquently in Lincoln’s address at Gettysburg—is rare, and always has been.
It’s understandable that we might wish that our ideals were common to the rest of the world. It’s also understandable that with our power in the world we might want to influence other nations in that direction.
On the other hand, our current assumptions about, say, equality, took us a long time to realize, and we’re certainly not finished yet. To demand that other societies adopt our assumptions without going through the development process that we have experienced is naďve, to say the least, and probably futile.
A bit of humility might do more to further our ideals than just about anything else.
June 14, 2006