Every year when I teach American Literature, the segment where we discuss revolutionary literature is one of my favorites. Students are always so skeptical, but the Declaration of Independence (or parts of it) makes me, honestly, so proud to be an American. We may falter; we certainly make plenty of mistakes, but what I love are the ideals to which we strive:
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.
Read it aloud. Isn’t it incredibly beautiful? It is a sentence that, though it didn’t and still doesn’t include “all men” in this equality, makes me intensely proud. The pursuit of happiness. The more common phrase was “life, liberty, and property,” coined by John Locke. It’s an odd phrase to toss in there, and there is speculation as to what, specifically, Jefferson meant by this.Â But note – nowhere in this sentence does it say these unalienable rights are ordained by the government. No, instead, they are something with which we as humans are endowed. This was and is an incredible notion, though very likely, not incredibly original as discussed in this article “The Surprising Origins and Meaning of ‘The Pursuit of Happiness'” by Carol V. Hamilton. Still, the inclusion, as opposed to what it could have been, is interesting.
Honestly, this document, in my opinion, is what has given us so much strife over the years. We set such ideals for ourselves, “that all men are created equal,”Â yet we must consistently revise ourselves as a governing body – as a people – to ensure we are adhering to and upholding them when we so often do not. I am not often outwardly patriotic, but I cannot read this document without pride for those principles to which we endeavor and without hoping someday soon, we will fulfill them.
Happy 4th of July to my fellow American friends. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness – hoping you intimately know all three. How are you celebrating today?
Read the entire document here.
Read another July 4th document, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” a moving speech by Frederick Douglass.