Are self-evident matters of freedom and human dignity really as self-evident as claimed in the Declaration of Independence? We had better have a national conversation about this question soon.

Thomas Jefferson wrote, "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." Notice that Jefferson wrote, "We hold these truths." For whom was he speaking? Certainly the committee that drafted the Declaration and those who signed it agreed that human dignity and basic rights were self-evident and God-given.

Yet, the Constitution was written just 11 years after the Declaration and, sadly, black men and women weren't considered equal to their white brethren. "Self-evident" was fuzzy even at this early point in our history.

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But it certainly wasn't fuzzy to slaves. Although they didn't have the same level of education as many of the Founders, slaves didn't need a Ph.D. in political philosophy to know that their unalienable rights were being violated. Harriet Jacobs wrote an autobiography about her life as a slave titled Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. When Jacobs was 12 years old, her mistress (owner) died and she thought she would be set free. When her mistress' will was read and it was revealed she had been bequeathed to a 5-year-old white girl, Harriet had the following thoughts:

"My mistress had taught me the precepts of God's Word: 'Though shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.' 'Whatsoever ye would that men should do unto you, do ye even so unto them.' But I was her slave, and I suppose she did not recognize me as her neighbor. I would give much to blot out from my memory that one great wrong."

Sadly, "self-evident" and "endowed by our Creator" were not clear concepts to Harriet's mistress. Why would she teach her God's Word? Did she think three-fifths of Harriet would be admitted to heaven one day?

Are inalienable rights endowed by our Creator self-evident or not?

The Founders wrote the Constitution to execute the principles described in the Declaration---yet it took bayonets and musket balls to arrive at an understanding of "self-evident."

We're experiencing serious moral confusion again today. Do the beating hearts in a womb constitute life protected by the Constitution? Is it self-evident that a woman should be forced by law to spend her hard-earned cash to buy a car for her neighbor via Cash for Clunkers? We can ask the same question about any of the bailouts du jour. Moreover, is it self-evident that young people should support retirees? Generating gigantic deficits and robbing future generations to pay for the excesses of today, is that a self-evident good as well? The answers to these questions will direct the future of our nation and the quality of life for hundreds of millions of people.

The mid-19th century teaches us that the nation plunged into chaos because self-evident wasn't self-evident. The same could happen today, and it could happen suddenly if the economy collapses. I think we need to have a national conversation about terms like "self-evident," "endowed by our Creator," and "unalienable rights" to prevent our country from exploring the depths of chaos again.

Lee Wishing
Lee Wishing

Lee is the administrative director of The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College.


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