As Americans, we have a reputation for coming up with new and innovative ways to celebrate our many holidays. In fact, we often seem to find reasons to invent new holidays. There are those among us who don’t celebrate any of them, and others who celebrate all of them, to the extreme. And then there are the rest of us. We learned as toddlers that The Fourth of July was a special day, and we came to know as history students the many twists and turns that put that famous date on our calendar. We memorized the Declaration of Independence, along with the Preamble to the Constitution. And the phrase “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness,” became a part of our national psyche. Through the centuries and decades since then, we seem to have come up with new translations of what those words really mean. This year I found myself analyzing the phrase, hoping to come to a realization of what our Founding Fathers had in mind when they set our nation on a course of revolution, and how they considered the impact on the generations that would follow.
Thomas Jefferson and those who assisted him had no crystal ball. Some sources tell us that the original wording by Jefferson was “the preservation of life,” apparently an indication that life, as they knew it, was good. They could not see a future such as the lives we live today. Life was hard. The family unit formed the foundation of colonial society, much like we might wish for today. The difference is in the day-to-day functions and the hardships associated with them. There were no conveniences … no electricity with appliances. There was disease with little medication and no vaccines. It was an agricultural society, before the machine age, and that meant that the weather often ruled the world around them, including flood and famine. But it was life as they knew it.
Liberty was another matter. Freedom at that time meant that this new nation would no longer be governed by the Mother Country. Its citizens, “endowed by their Creator with unalienable (the spelling in the original) rights,” would be protected from tyranny by this new government. Jefferson is quoted as saying, “the care of human life and happiness, and not their destruction, is the first and only object of good government.” Amen. It should be noted here that the voting populace was made up of white land owners/taxpayers, male, of course. Apparently it did not occur to anyone to offer the vote to women or to slaves. In fact, slavery was abolished 60 years before women would be allowed to vote. Voting rights for the descendants of slaves would come even later. Our freedom includes the right to refrain from voting, but it has been said that in America we do not have government by the majority. Instead, we have government by the majority who participate in the voting process.
As for the Pursuit of Happiness, the colonists’ pleasure lay in their work … hunting, fishing, barn raisings for men, and crafts and homemaking for the women; and at the end of the day, there might be music making, tavern stops, courting, parlor games. Socializing at its best. And like most of us, happiness was tied to their family life and their community involvement, all of which they had to pursue. Happiness itself was not to be provided by the government.
The phrase “the greater good,” or “the common good,” seems to be elusive these days. We understand that we cannot legislate morality. If we try, we just make criminals who are breaking man’s laws. They broke God’s laws, and the punishments for those acts will be administered by a Higher Power. We can’t even agree on what is moral or immoral, or even what the common or greater good is. Even lawmakers can’t agree. While one lawmaker wants to increase the speed limit, another wants to decrease it. The common good means nothing to those who speed, who smoke around others, who drink to excess and commit crimes of abuse and theft and murder as a result. And yes, those who refuse to take the precautions that are necessary to our survival of this plague.
Our freedom does come with some limits, most based on the common good. For instance, we must obtain a license to drive, and we must wear seat belts. In 1776, such probabilities were non-existent, but the Founders’ desire for the common good would attempt to cover any and all situations. Three hundred years before the Golden Rule of Christianity, Aristotle defined the common good as “proper to, and attainable only by, the community, yet individually shared by its members.” It behooves us to remember that we have become a nation with diverse cultures and values, and even an array of traditions, a far cry from The United States of America in its infancy. On this Independence Day, more than ever before, may we come together in spirit, celebrating our common birth and common hope.