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. — Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776
Let us pause now in our regular obeisance to the Constitution, whose veneration tends to peak in the months leading up to a presidential election, to note that the extraordinary events of the last week powerfully call to mind another foundational document in American history. That would be, of course, the Declaration of Independence, whose anniversary is almost upon us, without which there would have been no United States, or Constitution, at all.
All day Friday — as Americans assimilated the news that the rights to medical care and marriage had been made universal, as Confederate flags were lowered all over the South, as the president himself called the nation together in the sight of God to abjure hatred — they heard unspoken echoes of the Declaration’s ringing evocation of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” This phrase, now stamped indelibly on the American soul, might have turned out quite differently. Historians debate how Thomas Jefferson arrived at it, but he surely had in mind the English philosopher John Locke, who wrote in 1690 that “no one ought to harm another in his Life, Health, Liberty, or Possessions.” In 1774, two years before the Congress met in Philadelphia, the now little-remembered Declaration of Colonial Rights paraphrased Locke in asserting a right to “life, liberty and property.” But Jefferson, with the backing of Benjamin Franklin, prevailed on the other drafters to substitute the phrase about happiness. Even down to the present, there are those, notably the libertarian followers of novelist Ayn Rand, who think Jefferson unfairly shortchanged “property.”
Celebrating outside the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Jacquelyn Martin/AP)
But there it is, in language as straightforward and as moving as political rhetoric ever gets, and we live in its light today. In 1776, the right to “life” presumably wasn’t meant to include medical care, because medicine didn’t, as a rule, cure anyone — but what else could it possibly mean today, when life or death may hinge on access to the right drug or surgery? And how better to honor “liberty” than to finally remove, from public buildings and grounds, the symbol of a power that oppressed and enslaved the ancestors of millions of Americans? And as for “the pursuit of happiness” — well, that speaks for itself. Justice Kennedy’s decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, striking down bans on same-sex marriage, didn’t directly reference the Declaration. (The dissents by Justices Scalia and Thomas did, although to make the opposite point.) But Kennedy’s opinion did cite a ruling in a 1967 case — Loving v. Virginia, which struck down state laws prohibiting interracial marriage, calling the right to wed “one of the vital personal rights essential to the orderly pursuit of happiness by free men.” (Ironic now to reflect that as recently as that year such an opinion could be written without acknowledging in its language that women might also be pursuing happiness through marriage.)
And where do these rights come from? From the “Creator,” and we all know who that is, whatever Jefferson may have privately thought about organized religion. In a trend that has been building for some time, but gained new momentum just in the last two weeks, the left has begun to reclaim some of the moral and spiritual energy of Christianity. Opponents of same-sex marriage must know they are fighting a rear-guard action; it is the right that finds itself on the defensive about the pope’s statements on climate change and economic justice. Obama, for all his cool, cerebral approach to policy and politics, has always had a touch of the preacher in him, and his eulogy Friday for the murdered pastor Clementa Pinckney was as close to a sermon as any sitting president has come in many years. Even his enemies would have to admit that it takes courage to launch into “Amazing Grace” solo, a cappella, in front of an audience of thousands. His has been a consequential, and controversial, presidency. But as it approaches its final year, events have conspired to make him the man of the hour.
President Obama speaks during services honoring the life of the Rev. Clementa Pinckney in Charleston, S.C. (Photo: David Goldman/AP)