Holding these truths

Here’s a patriotic column for the fourth.

In confused and stressful times like these, in which the word “government” has become a curseword, it’s good to go back to the earliest moments of our founding and refresh ourselves with the basic logic of the American enterprise. In fact, our own democratic government is, in theory anyway, inspiring and comforting: one of the best things about us.

This is how we started: “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.”

Would these truths have seemed self-evident if this writing had not declared them to be so? In any case, I find reading this declaration to have the comfort of coming home to something fundamental in my education, in my own American life.

We hold these truths”: Meaning, in a more limited sense, “we coming up with this language, doing this instituting,” but in a broader sense, it’s “we” the people, human beings more generally in whose behalf the authors were speaking. Yes, there’s a leap of faith in a reading of this as something other than “we rich, white men”. It feels like as generous and inclusive a “we” of which these men were capable. (Of course in those pre-feminist days, “men” was generic: mankind, including women, even if for women it was a more abstract equality/inclusion which has taken a long time to find expression in laws. )

We hold these truths to be self-evident . . .” Note: not “God tell us” or even “we know” but “we hold.” A good, honest start, this recognition that in instituting a government you are building a boat under you while already afloat (that basic human condition). You’ve got to start somewhere, and we start with these cherished beliefs and values.

What a lovely, humane, reassuring start it is–to a government, to a society, to each individual life that is born into that society– this self-evident truth that all are created equal. (And, actually, if you look closely, that “all” seems to include those born elsewhere as well. It doesn’t say “all men born on this side of the ocean, within our national boundaries, north of the wall…)

Note that the truth held is that we are all born equal, among other ways, in wanting a good life. Nobody wants to be miserable.

It is often insisted that these words do not guarantee happiness, only the right to pursue it. But the implication, it seems clear, is that something’s wrong if we, if some of us, (let alone many millions) are miserable. That the proof of whether or not government has delivered the right to pursue is in the pudding.

There is nothing here of “devil take the hindmost” or “cream rising to the top.” Note that it doesn’t say we are all equally motivated to become hedge fund managers, accumulate a big net worth. It doesn’t even say you are more virtuous if you do. It does say that we are equally interested in coming up with some version of a good life.

It doesn’t talk about how big or small government should be, but it doesn’t leave room for anything but a government big enough to do what it proposes, to produce the sort of life it declares is equally the natural endowment of all.

It still seems a deeply satisfying founding and shaping idea. And an indisputably generous and liberal idea it is. Probably a lot of us still hold these truths to be self-evident. And maybe the failure to make sure our government does what it’s supposed to do is part of our bitterness now.


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