by Kenneth R. Kollodge
How is right distinguished from wrong?
In virtually every situation I can imagine when there is a political or legal question pertaining to the United States, the answer can almost always be deduced if you just start at the beginning. And what is that “beginning?”
In America, that beginning, that footing, that foundation our society rests upon and without which we would be lost and plunged into anarchy, is the first part of the second paragraph of our Declaration of Independence. That phrase presents a metaphysical and ethical set of interrelated notions that are absolute and prior to law. As well, in order to be valid, no law can be in conflict with the notions expressed in this “beginning.”
Many of us are able to recite this “beginning” by heart, but for those who may have forgotten it, it goes as follows:
“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…..”
This beginning or footing is not modifiable or reviewable by any court and cannot be changed by administrative edicts or legislative bodies of any kind. It is beyond the reach of anyone who might want to change any of it. Most important to understand, the notions in this section of the Declaration of Independence cannot be changed by any elected or appointed public servants whose primary duty is to serve the owners of the United States, the citizens. Bluntly, and for added emphasis, even if the U.S. Congress, the President and all nine justices of the Supreme Court decided unanimously then acted in concert, their decision to make changes to this “beginning” would be null and void.
That “beginning” statement is the footing, the foundation upon which our society rests. It is the statement that all law must be consistent with in order to be legitimate and applicable and it trumps all laws that are not consistent with it, rendering them voidable and contradictory to the notion of what America is. And here are some analyses and explanations of what this statement means, section by section.
“WE hold these Truths to be Self-evident” signifies that no proof of any kind is necessary in order that the series of “truths” about to be specified are universally recognized as undeniable and enduring whether they are acknowledged to be or not.
“that all Men are created equal” means at least that all persons or humans are entitled to equal opportunities under whatever laws might be enacted following this “beginning” statement. And the word “Men” cannot be understood to mean male only with females excluded. “Men,” undisputedly in this case, must mean “person” or “human” either male or female.
“that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.” This part of the “beginning” could lead to confusion about one point and leave the crucial point understated, possibly even overlooked without some clarification.
No doubt, some will insist that “Creator” signifies a christian god thereby satisfied that Thomas Jefferson, who is credited as the principal author of the Declaration of Independence, intended to introduce god as an integral part of this beginning statement. This would be contrary to historical facts and therefore not persuasive.
“Creator” is meant to identify any of several broad notions of a beginning cause or impetus. “Creator” here signifies “first cause” or “prime mover” or “initial force” that brought what we see around us into existence and certainly is not restricted to a single christian god the concept of which frequently includes man’s requirement to worship and obey. Besides, Thomas Jefferson is also the one who wrote the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom which included the section, “…it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” Many leading scholars have concluded that Jefferson was probably a deist which would quite likely preclude him from intending “Creator” to mean a christian god and all that that would entail.
However, the critical point in this portion of the “beginning” that is sometimes overlooked is the meaning and consequence of the word “unalienable.” Unalienable means unable to be taken away from or separated from. Try thinking of it this way. Just as you cannot separate the heat from the fire or the wetness from the water, you cannot separate these “rights,” about to be enumerated in the final portion of this “beginning” statement, from a human being. These rights attach to all humans and are a part of them just by the fact of their existence. In short, there is no such thing as a human being without these rights.
“that among these (rights) are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness…” finishes the “beginning” statement or foundation of our society. And all that comes after it, including our Constitution and all laws, regulations, ordinances, executive orders, edicts and rules from administrators must be consistent with the notions expressed in this beginning, this foundation, in order to be valid.
Other than the actual rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness that are enumerated, there is the critical phrase “that among these are” which unquestionably establishes that the rights enumerated do not constitute an exhaustive list. That is, in the future, there may be more rights that are identified as unalienable which are not specified here.
A human can relinquish his right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness if it is on a purely voluntary basis, but these “rights” can never be taken away from a person by anyone or anything. Furthermore, no one has any legal obligation, and I argue, nor does anyone have a moral obligation of any kind to give up these rights.
At this point, there are bound to be some that are temporarily confused and point out that the U.S. government and some states have the power and sometimes exercise the power to execute someone after a trial that supposedly meets the standard of due process. This, however, is easily cleared up by distinguishing between “taking a person’s life” and that person’s “right to life” which are different things altogether.
Of course, the state with it’s courts, jails, police forces and lethal injections can overpower any single individual and put them to death, but the state still hasn’t taken away that person’s “right” to their life and they never can strip a person of his right to his life. And the same can be said of liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
As surprising and possibly repugnant as this might appear, anyone is justified in fighting to preserve their own live with whatever means are at their disposal. That might just be one of the paradoxes of our existence on this earth logically following from the notions expressed in this “beginning” declaration.
I hope to develop future essays drawing additional conclusions and identifying needed and justified changes in our society that are indicated by this analysis of this portion of the Declaration of Independence, our “beginning” set of concepts. Some of these additional conclusions are likely to be satisfying and possibly even consoling to some and others are likely to be disturbing and infuriating as sacred cows end up getting kicked.