Celebrating “Life, Liberty, And The Pursuit Of Happiness”


Every person who calls him/herself an “American” knows, or should know, that the Declaration of Independence was drafted principally by Thomas Jefferson, with a little help from his friends: Benjamin Franklin and John Adams.

That Declaration lays out a series of grievances against the king of England, while also stating what some historians have called the “American creed”: the natural right to political independence and self-governance based on the consent of the governed – which right, in turn, is founded on the individual human rights to “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.”

Years later, Jefferson wrote that these principles were the common-sense “expression of the American mind” – an expression clearly unique to its time and place, yet ultimately transcendent of both.

Two hundred thirty-eight years later, those principles still serve as the cornerstone of our republican form of government, embodied in a Constitution that has required the sustenance of only 27 amendments, 10 of which form the Bill of Rights enacted within two years of the Constitution’s ratification.

This country’s Founders were not without personal flaws, most of which have already been well-documented and critiqued. For example, although the initial draft Declaration presented to the Continental Congress by the “Committee of Five” (Jefferson, Franklin, Adams, Roger Sherman and Robert Livingston) included a condemnation of Britain for introducing the slave trade to the colonies, that passage was rejected by a combination of northern and southern representatives – the former because of economic interests in the slave trade itself, the latter because of the use of slaves to maintain their agricultural economies.

But despite their flaws, they were exceptional men who fortuitously came together at the same time and in the same place to chart a new course of human existence, growth and development unequalled before or since. And they did it at mortal risk to themselves, their families and their friends.

How many of us, finding ourselves in a sultry Philadelphia during the summer of 1776, would have pledged “our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor” in support of the Declaration’s principles?

How many of us would do so today?

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2 comments so far

Dear Editor,

Thanks for the essay. I always enjoy your comments on our national holidays.

EDITOR’S NOTE: You’re welcome – we always enjoy thinking about and writing them.

People often forget how brutal the Revolutionary War was and how much the signers of the Declaration of Independence not only risked but actually suffered as a result of their brave and defiant act.

Five signers were captured by the British as traitors, and tortured before they died.

Twelve had their homes ransacked and burned.

Two lost their sons serving in the Revolutionary Army; another had two sons captured.

Nine of the fifty six signers fought and died from wounds or hardships of the Revolutionary War.

What kind of men were they?

Twenty-four were lawyers and jurists.

Eleven were merchants, nine were farmers and large plantation owners; well educated men of means who signed the Declaration of Independence knowing full well that the penalty would be death if they were captured.

Carter Braxton of Virginia, a wealthy planter and trader, saw his ships swept from the seas by the British Navy. He sold his home and properties to pay his debts, and died in rags.

Thomas McKeam was so hounded by the British that he was forced to move his family almost constantly. He served in Congress without pay and his family was kept in hiding. His possessions were taken from him, and poverty was his reward.

Vandals or soldiers looted the properties of Dillery, Hall, Clymer, Walton, Gwinnett, Heyward, Rutledge and Middleton.

At the battle of Yorktown, Thomas Nelson, Jr. noted that the British general Cornwallis had taken over the Nelson home for his headquarters. Nelson quietly urged General George Washington to open fire on his ancestral home. The home was destroyed and Nelson died bankrupt.

Francis Lewis had his home and properties destroyed. The enemy jailed his wife and she died within a few months.

John Hart was driven from his wife’s bedside as she was dying. Their 13 children fled for their lives. His fields and his gristmill were laid to waste. For more than a year he lived in forests and caves, returning home to find his wife dead and his children vanished.

We are all forever in their debt.

EDITOR’S NOTE: And according to Scottish novelist, poet and Governor-General of Canada from 1935 to 1940, John Buchan: “We can pay our debts to the past by putting the future in debt to ourselves.”

So get busy, alderman! 🙂

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