July 4, 2010 will mark the 234th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Each year at this time, we should pause to consider its meaning.
"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."
Here is what those words mean to me:
Rights apply to individuals, not groups. In the Federalist Papers, Number 10, James Madison, the principle architect of the U.S. Constitution, addressed the danger of a democracy bringing factions [political parties] into power: "[S]uch democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property."
Rights are inherent in our nature as human beings - endowed by their Creator. Like Thomas Jefferson, one need not believe in a proactive God [Jefferson was a deist] for the meaning of that phrase to be clear: No government gives us our rights, and no government can take them away, (though governments can - and often do - violate them.) In Jefferson's Summary View of the Rights of British America, he wrote that free people claim their rights "as derived from the laws of nature, and not as the gift of their Chief Magistrate." It is, however, the primary purpose of a just and proper government to protect individual rights.
Rights are not entitlements. In a letter to Isaac Tiffany, Jefferson defined liberty as "unobstructed action according to our will within limits drawn around us by the equal rights of others." We may work for the things we want, but we may not expect the government to violate the rights of others to provide us with free lunches - or houses or health care. James Madison declared in Congress, "I cannot undertake to lay my finger on that article of the Constitution which granted a right to Congress of expending, on objects of benevolence, the money of their constituents."
Rights include the right to property. Without property rights, no other rights are possible. If the government can seize the fruits of your labor, doesn't that make you a slave? If you are a business owner, with the government regulating virtually every aspect of your enterprise, doesn't that make you a pawn?
Rights are blind to position or wealth. All men - rich or poor, famous or obscure - are equal with respect to their natural rights. John Adams wrote in A Defense of the Constitutions of Government of the United States, "[I]t must be remembered that the rich are people just as well as the poor; that they have rights as well as others; that they have as clear and as sacred a right to their large property as others have to theirs which is smaller; that oppression to them is as possible and as wicked as to others."
In my opinion, rights are violated only by force or fraud. Our rights are not violated when someone earns billions betting against the housing market. Our rights are not violated when Rush Limbaugh or Jon Stewart say things we find offensive. Our rights are not violated when we are not hired or given a raise. Our rights are violated when we are forced by the government to pay or receive wages or benefits different than we would otherwise pay or accept. Our rights are violated when the government seizes our property for sale to others for private development.
Two hundred and thirty-four years after its signing, The Declaration of Independence still stands as history's most eloquent testament to Liberty. Critically, the future of our nation depends on our understanding and reclaiming the principles upon which it is based. Respectfully, I suggest that we should each read the Declaration of Independence in its entirety; and write out in our own words what it means. Better yet, we should do this with our children or grandchildren. Liberty has a country to reclaim.