We (and by that I mean the broader “we” – across the country – not just me and my loved ones) usually celebrate July 4th, Independence Day, by grilling meat and drinking beer. Symbolically, those are quite significant: the first, representing our abundance, our ability to feed ourselves well; the second, representing our maturity, our ability to handle our alcohol.
True, I just made that up. But I like it.
A friend of mine spent part of today reading the Declaration of Independence. I’ve been working my way through The Bill of Rights by Akhil Reed Amar, which places the Bill of Rights in historical context to help explicate its original intent and the adaptations it has gone through over the years. (If you read through the recent Supreme Court decision in McDonald et al vs. City of Chicago regarding the right to keep and bear arms, you will see this book references many times.) It is a good reminder of what this country was formed to embody – and also of the fact that our Constitution, the basis for our government, was never intended to be set in stone, not to be changed under any circumstances. No, indeed. In fact, those radicals who wrote it set it up in such a way that, if the people were unhappy with the way the government turned out, they had the power to get together and change it, even to the extent of writing a new constitution. That’s profound (and probably one of the reasons we have not needed to do so these many years).
This shows up immediately 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 to alter or abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundations on such Principles, and organizing its Powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”
(Then there follows some cautionary notes about not changing things for “light and transient” causes.)
In celebration of the day, I would like to reflect a bit on the meaning of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” – not Jefferson’s original meaning, but the meaning it has now, to me.
A free society is utterly dependent on order to remain free. The degeneration of order threatens our right to Life, and without feeling reasonably secure in our persons we can hardly be said to have Liberty, or to be able to pursue Happiness. But beyond that is fear. One of the reasons we as a society are often willing to trade some degree of freedom for what we imagine to be increased safety is: we are afraid of dying. The challenge of our type of government, however, is the requirement of its citizens to take responsibility not only for the formation and running of the government itself, but also for the defense of the principles on which it is founded – the ones “as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.” This means we are all full participants in our government, all the time; and if we don’t like it, if we don’t feel it is effecting our Safety and/or Happiness, then we are responsible for changing it. The folks we have elected, or appointed, or hired, are nothing more than our proxies. We cannot give up responsibility to them – “take care of us, please!” – so that we can blithely forget about any possible threats. Through this declaration, and our Constitution, we take individual responsibility for awareness of our situation and determination of how best to care for it.
This is Life. Can we feed ourselves? Or must someone else do it for us?
Definition time (from Merriam-Webster online):
1 : the quality or state of being free: a : the power to do as one pleases b : freedom from physical restraint c : freedom from arbitrary or despotic control d : the positive enjoyment of various social, political, or economic rights and privileges e : the power of choice
2 a : a right or immunity enjoyed by prescription or by grant : privilege b : permission especially to go freely within specified limits
3 : an action going beyond normal limits: as a : a breach of etiquette or propriety : familiarity b : risk, chance <took foolish liberties with his health> c : a violation of rules or a deviation from standard practice d : a distortion of fact
4 : a short authorized absence from naval duty usually for less than 48 hours
As you read the above, you will note that having liberty, exercising liberty, includes the ability to do things which are foolish and self-destructive, if it so pleases you. I say, let us have liberty. Let us not have a government which, at our insistence, saves us from the foolish exercising of our own liberty.
Can we hold our alcohol? If not, what do we learn from the experience?
The Pursuit of Happiness
I have heard an alternate way of thinking of this: the pursuit of excellence. For some of us, that is happiness. I suppose it’s different for each person. (For a spiritual reflection on what happiness is, as a journey, see Happiness Is…) Liberty allows us to pursue happiness in the way which works for us as individuals. And pursuing happiness, exercising our liberty, is how we learn who we are and who we can become.
And taking responsibility for Life, for creating the container of our government and country; exercising Liberty, by making our own choices, even when they include mistakes, and learning from them; and pursuing Happiness, learning about who we really are and what we can become individually and together – this is how we grow as a country, as a culture, in a larger awareness of what it means to be human.
Can we feed ourselves? Can we hold our alcohol? Whom do we gather around us in life? How do we nourish each other? What do we value?
Happy Independence Day.