July 4, 2008

Parse This

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. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
Well, it's that time of year again (already!).

Let's just start with the first proposition, that it is "self-evident" that "all men are created equal."

It is evident that all men are not equal when it comes to basketball prowess, mathematical skill, and perfect pitch. What, then, doth "equal" mean? Equal in rights to participate in gummint? Jefferson may have proclaimed this equality as an ideal, but it was belied by property qualifications for voting, slavery, and if "men" is taken to be gender-inclusive, the limited rights of women. To rescue the proposition, we must retreat to some rather abstract notion of equal importance to God, rather like the mother who loves her slow and disobedient offspring just as much as her clean, obedient achievers.

Not much of a proposition on which to found a nation, however nice a ring the words have to them.

Next we come to natural rights and the reason for governments. I'll leave the "life, liberty" stuff to the reader, but it's pretty clear that governments in fact were not instituted to secure these rights, but to get organized to fight the guys over the next hill, or to make sure the Big Men kept more of the women and luxuries than the peasants.

I love the country and the ring of the words, but like most truisms, their sound is more persuasive than their sense.

Talk amongst yourselves, as Linda Richman would say.


TK said...

They're such touching documents, I think--human attempts to organize on such a grand scale. I love them. National anthems, too.

The Indian constitution abolishes untouchability, and protects religious expression. As if. Determinedly secular--though the laws deal differently with Hindu and Muslim. But how else could they swing a national framework in '49?

There's solace in our longest continuous democracy in human history. Fine lines required, maybe.

Happy belated 4th!

Grumpy Old Man said...

Beautiful documents, true. Sometimes the sound is better than the sense.

Read Mencken on the Gettysburg Address some time.


TK said...

Read Mencken on Gettysburg Address. Grumpy old guy, wasn't he? Lacheln im Gedanken.

Grumpy Old Man said...

HLM was grumpy and opinionated, but almost always interesting.

His American Language is well worth dipping into.

As for the Gettysburg Address, he recognizes its oratorical power but remains a skeptic of its claims. It has become un-PC to question the official story of the Late Unpleasantness. There's more to it than the official story.

Cheers. And remember, "Ich bin ein Berliner." I AM a jelly doughnut.