Holiday History: July 4th and unalienable rights

U.S. Declaration of Independence with American flag
U.S. Declaration of Independence with American flag

Where do your rights come from? Among the picnics, parades, and fireworks displays, that’s something to consider this long Independence Day weekend.

Independence Day marks the date in 1776—July 4th—when the Continental Congress approved the final draft of the Declaration of Independence, more than a year after the start of the Revolutionary War. It stated the reasons why the 13 British colonies ought to be the free and independent United States of America.

“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.”

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Those words from the Declaration of Independence, written by Thomas Jefferson (and his committee) are among the most famous in the English language. They are also the first of their type: while many writers and speakers had expressed similar ideas over the previous years and centuries, this was the first time a founding document for a country expressly put the rights of the people first.

These rights are considered to be “self-evident” and “unalienable,” meaning they should be obvious to everyone and absolute. Why? The Declaration says they are not conferred on us by other men—in this case, the King of England or England’s Parliament. Instead, the rights of each individual come from the person’s Creator.

In the preceding paragraph—the opening one—the Declaration also sees a group of people, the people of the United States, as aspiring 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.”

Reproduction of painting depicting signing of Declaration of Independence

Many historians believe that these assertions of rights were less important to most of the people reading or hearing the document at the time. They say many, if not most, of those who supported the American Revolution were more interested in the list of offenses of King George III and England against the American people. Three of the best known ones are listed as, “For cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world,” “For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent,” and “For depriving us in many cases, of the benefits of Trial by Jury.”

There are more than 20 other specific complaints.

But it is the high-minded wording of unalienable rights that caught the imagination of Americans and others throughout the world.

In 1848, activists held the Seneca Falls Convention to advance women’s rights. A Declaration of Sentiments was issued proclaiming the right of equality for women. Note what has changed here, and what has stayed the same.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

The document acknowledges women to be equal to men; the source of these rights remained the same.

Americans love to proclaim their rights, discuss them, and defend them as they see appropriate. We even seem to enjoy the debate over specific rights, such as those enumerated in the Bill of Rights to the Constitution.

What restrictions can be put on the right to bear arms in the Second Amendment? Is there any sort of speech that is not protected? Is there a point at which expressing a different political viewpoint becomes sedition or treason, and, if so, where is that point?

So, where do your rights originate? A Creator? The people themselves? The government constructed by the people?

The lofty words of the Declaration have often come under criticism because of the people who wrote them and ratified them at the Continental Congress. For example, how could Thomas Jefferson write that all men are created equal when he himself owned slaves?

Perhaps that question is best answered by a president who came long after Jefferson:

“What makes us exceptional, what makes us America is our allegiance to an idea articulated in a declaration made more than two centuries ago:

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.

Today we continue a never ending journey to bridge the meaning of those words with the realities of our time. For history tells us that while these truths may be self-evident, they’ve never been self-executing. That while freedom is a gift from God, it must be secured by His people here on earth.”

That’s President Barack Obama in his second inaugural address, on January 21, 2013.

Presidential candidate Barack Obama speaking with American flag in background

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