Bold Ideas Penned by Imperfect Men
Today we celebrate Independence Day in America. On this day in 1776, Congress officially declared American independence from Great Britain by means of the Declaration of Independence – a document as important as any other penned in the entire history of humanity. I reread the Declaration this last weekend and was again amazed by the ideals described therein. Life. Liberty. The pursuit of happiness. Natural rights. Equality. Just institutions of government. Bold ideas combined with eloquence that changed the world forever.
Yet by today’s standards, America’s founding lacked political correctness. In 21st century America, diversity is a must – and many are quick to point out the lack of diversity among America’s founders. It’s true: America’s founders were all men who – to my knowledge – all identified as such. They were all white. They were rich. They were influenced by Christian morality. Where were the women? The transgender? The minorities? The disabled? The poor? The Muslim, Jewish, and atheist?
And worse yet, what about the hypocrisy of America’s founders who owned slaves? How could those men possibly proclaim self-evident truths like “all men are created equal” and that “they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights” like life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness – all while enslaving other human beings?
There’s no question: those men who penned the bold, eloquent ideas in the Declaration of Independence were flawed human beings. And while it’s generally inadvisable to impose today’s social norms upon historical events, there’s also no reason to bury our 21st century American heads when it comes to our founders’ imperfections. In fact, I suggest that quite the opposite is true: not only is it acceptable to openly recognize the imperfections of America’s founding and founders, it’s actually very important for us to do so – because there is still work to be done to realize our founders’ vision for America.
Casting a Virtuous Vision for America’s Future
I recognize that America’s founders were good leaders. In current times and throughout history, good leaders recognize their days’ broken circumstances, but they don’t settle for them. Rather, good leaders envision something new and something better for the future – and they labor and lead others day-in and day-out to realize their visions for a better tomorrow.
In that spirit, America’s founders expressed their bold, eloquent ideals in the Declaration of Independence not because their generation had already achieved the ideals they penned, but rather because the founders agreed that such ideals were worth striving for in America’s future.
Accordingly, our mission as 21st century Americans must not be to uphold the society which our founders achieved, but rather to continue in our ever renewing efforts to build the free, just, peaceful, loving, and prosperous nation which our founders envisioned nearly 250 years ago.
In other words, we ourselves, in every generation, must evaluate the ideals described in the Declaration of Independence and evaluate their virtue – despite the personal and social imperfections of those men who originally penned them.
Advancing American Ideals
Are the ideals described in the Declaration of Independence worth striving for? I suggest they are. Below are the opening statements from the Declaration of Independence and a few of my thoughts for our nation today.
When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people 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, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
It takes both courage and humility to peacefully engage others in conversation about fundamentally important ideas – especially when those with whom we’re engaging disagree with our personal points of view. Yet imagine how our conversations would sound if we entered into them with “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind.” Even in times of disagreement (i.e. “separation”), our desire to gain and maintain others’ respect for our personal points of view would influence the presentation of our points of view. Needless to say, our Facebook and Twitter feeds would look a lot different. And I suggest that our conversations would be far more productive.
I am an opinionated guy. I love free market capitalism and limited, constitutional government. But since launching LTP two years ago, I’ve committed myself to engaging with others – including those who disagree with my ideas – in a spirit of humility and respect. And I’ve had some fantastic conversations with people across the political spectrum as a result.
You tell me: Who makes a greater impact in American culture? The person who hurls insults at their debate opponents, or the person who seeks their debate opponents’ “decent respect” – even if agreement is not reached?
We hold these truths to be self-evident,
Certain truths about our human existence aren’t subject to debate. The truths described in the Declaration of Independence are both morally and practically right, even if they’re yet to be fully realized in this world. They are ideals worth striving for because they are good. No justification or “proof” is of their excellence required.
that all men are created equal,
This is the first self-evident truth.
Immediately the word “men” glares out at us in 21st century America as an imperfection. And it is an imperfection. So let’s improve upon it by thinking in terms of all individuals instead of all men. Black, white, man, woman, young, old, straight, gay, transgender, poor, rich, progressive, classically liberal, conservative, Christian, Muslim, atheist – whatever labels might apply to each of us, we are all individuals. And we individuals are all created equal.
Being created equal doesn’t mean that we are equal. Clearly we are not, nor should we strive to be. Consider: I geek out about ideas related to liberty. I like to write. I like to podcast. I like business. Maybe you’re the same way – but maybe you’re not! Maybe you’re passionate about running marathons or playing the trumpet or doing any number of other things. The point of liberty is that we’re free to do our thing in life – and it is perfectly good for those things to differ.
Being created equal essentially means two things: first of all, we are equal before God (or nature, if you prefer) as individuals. As such, we have a right to live and act in accordance to our values, so long as we do not interfere with others’ rights to do the same. Secondly, we have equal opportunity – not in a literal sense, because opportunities do vary from person to person – but rather in the sense that we individuals all have a right to achieve in accordance to our talents, abilities, interests, and values. No artificially constructed barriers should stand in our way.
This ideal was true in 1776. It is true today. And while we are yet to fully realize this ideal, it is right for us to continue to strive towards it. I suggest that we’ll make huge steps in the right direction in this regard when we recognize and embrace the idea that individuals’ lives matter.
that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
These are the second and third self-evident truths. Second: we individuals are endowed by God (or, again, nature if you prefer) with natural rights. Third: among these natural rights are our individual rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
I chat about life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness all the time with my guests on The Do Your Thing Podcast. Generally speaking, I think these ideals are pretty well embraced in our 21st century American culture – although we could do a better job at thinking and speaking of these ideals in terms of America’s founding principles.
When we do our thing in life, or when we see and encourage others who are doing their thing in life, let’s call it what it is: the embracing and exercising of liberty to pursue happiness and live life. We’re able to do our thing today because America’s imperfect founders penned bold, eloquent ideas back in 1776, and we continue to build upon the vision they cast for America’s future in this modern era.
— That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,
This is the fourth self-evident truth. (Again, let’s substitute “individuals” for the word “men” and carry on.)
Government has legitimate roles to play in our lives – and those legitimate roles start with government offering protection for our natural rights from both external and internal threats. Government can and often does play other roles in society, but the legitimacy of those roles – the judging of government’s roles as just or unjust – depends entirely on the consent offered or withheld by We the People.
Government is here to serve We the People – not vice versa. It’s a concept largely forgotten about by politicians in our modern era, but it was an idea well understood by America’s founders. And it’s an ideal we should strive for today. To learn more about these two ideas, check out my conversations with Judge Jim Troupis about national liberty and political liberty here.
— 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.
This is the fifth self-evident truth – and, frankly, I think this is where a lot of us are in America right now, myself included. Across the political spectrum, we individuals are largely disgusted with our governments (particularly the Federal Government), so we’re exercising our political liberty to alter them.
Elections play a role in our efforts, but elections alone are not enough. I maintain that there are no political solutions to our cultural problems, but there are cultural solutions to our political ones. Accordingly, I believe that cultural literacy about liberty is of utmost importance – hence my efforts with LTP. Others, like my friend and author Tim Dake, pursue the alteration of government through our nation’s Constitutional Amendment process.
The point is that it is right for We the People to shape, and reshape, our governments as we see fit. Politicians, bureaucrats, and vested interests might not like it – but too bad for them. Our government doesn’t exist to serve them. It exists to serve and protect We the People. It an ideal as true today as it was in 1776.
The Declaration of Independence doesn’t stop there, of course. I encourage you to read the entire document here. But the ideals listed in this post give us plenty to chew on as is. It’s a great place to start as we ponder the idea of America on our nation’s birthday today.
I’ll wrap up this post with a quote I came across in recent months from Wes Jackson, founder of The Land Institute, who said that “If your life’s work can be accomplished in your lifetime, you’re not thinking big enough.”
America’s founders thought huge. They changed the world with the Declaration of Independence on this day in 1776. No, they did not live long enough themselves to accomplish the ideals they set before the world, but they cast vision for the future of America. And now it’s our turn to carry on in the work they initiated, not because they were perfect men, but rather because their ideals were – and are – worth striving for.