Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Self-Evident Truth

I like Independence Day (or the 4th of July, as we are wont to call it). And not just because it's a public holiday and an excuse to picnic and/or barbecue and watch fireworks, although I like all those things well enough.

Mostly I like Independence Day because I love the Declaration of Independence. As both a piece of intellectual history and a piece of writing, the declaration stands out. I remember discovering this document when I was fairly young. My parents had ordered copies of some important historical documents (Declaration of Independence, Constitution, etc.) from someplace, and I was completely smitten with them. I loved the handwriting and the language, though both were very hard to decipher. I memorized a big chunk of the start of the declaration, even though I didn't really understand what it all meant.

Over the years, I learned much more about the document itself, it's place in history, and the principle author, Thomas Jefferson. The declaration says a lot about Jefferson and his ideas and attitudes.

And perhaps no set of words in any document has been so affecting to me as these:
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.
I was pondering those words last night as I was trying to sleep. In part, I was thinking in the context of the recent Supreme Court decision in the case of Hamdan v. Rumsfeld. I've heard and read a lot of discussion from people saying we shouldn't grant the rights of due process and such to "enemy combatants" and whatnot, and particularly that we should not extend the protections of the Geneva Convention to accused terrorists.

I could not disagree more. I'm no lawyer, of course, but some things are quite clear to me. One of those things is those word cited above, "...that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights...". We don't get to choose who is deserving of good treatment: it is everyone's right. And our supreme law, the Constitution, defines that for us: the 14th amendment clearly states that
...nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.
It's really quite unambiguous. It doesn't matter who you are, or what crimes someone thinks you might have committed. You have the right to due process and equal protection. We can't just lock people up without telling them why, giving them representation, and allowing them to present evidence on their own behalf. That is not our way. Or at least, not legally.

So, anyway, read the Declaration and rejoice in it. The language soars in its idealism, in the principles it espouses. Take heart that we live in a country founded on such principles, and maintain hope that we can live up to them.

It's striking the way the document ends, with a pledge by the signers to one another:
...we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.
One can hardly imagine the political "leaders" of today making such a declaration. Indeed, it's hard to imagine any of them even understanding such a pledge. May we educate them and make them worth of the trust placed in them--and us--by the founders.

1 comment:

sueinsacca said...

"Right on!" hardly seems adequate, but that's what leaps to mind. Our current national "leaders" are a profoundly disappointing lot.