Thursday, May 14th, 2009 | Author:

This post is part of the Favorite Founders’ Quote Friday meme. Go to Meet the Founding Fathers to see who else has participated today.

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With this post, I finally(!) conclude my line-by-line examination of the most famous part of the Declaration of Independence, but here’s a little refresher as I know it’s been a long time between posts.

In the first post I looked at the phrase, We hold these truths to be self-evident. I established that relative moralism, which declares that no universal standard exists to judge right or wrong, is a lie that many Americans have been taught and have believed. In contrast, ethical positions do not change, but are self-evident in that we instinctively recognize injustice.

In part II, I examined the phrase that all men are created equal, concluding that to “create” means to bring into existence and not to “evolve,” and equal in this case doesn’t mean size or ability or morals or accomplishments or station in life, but instead refers to an individual’s inherent value or worth. I restated the phrase this way: all men are brought into existence having equal worth.

Based largely on Webster’s 1828 dictionary, Part III amplified the next phrase as follows:

that all men are freely given gifts by the One who brought them into existence, which are based on the law or will of God and conform to truth and justice, and may not be transferred or have any legal claims placed against them

Today we’ll look at the last phrase: that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Being careful to state that the rights listed are not the only rights, the founders none-the-less selected three as being worth mentioning individually:

Life: The first definition of life in Webster’s 1828 version goes this way, emphasis added:

In a general sense, that state of animals and plants, or of an organized being, in which its natural functions and motions are performed, or in which its organs are capable of performing their functions. A tree is not destitute of life in winter, when the functions of its organs are suspended; nor man during a swoon or syncope; nor strictly birds, quadrupeds or serpents during their torpitude in winter. They are not strictly dead, till the functions of their organs are incapable of being renewed.

If we accept this definition as being the one our founders understood, then the right to life begins at conception, for what is more natural than our development in the womb? Concurrently, the right to life does not end until all functions are beyond renewal. “Brain-dead” then is a meaningless term if the heart or any other organ continues to function.

This definition agrees with the 4th century Hippocratic Oath which, until quite recently, included the following statement:

I will not give a lethal drug to anyone if I am asked, nor will I advise such a plan; and similarly I will not give a woman a pessary to cause an abortion.

Liberty: Returning to Webster’s 1828 edition, the first definition of liberty is this, emphasis added:

1. Freedom from restraint, in a general sense, and applicable to the body, or to the will or mind. The body is at liberty, when not confined; the will or mind is at liberty, when not checked or controlled. A man enjoys liberty, when no physical force operates to restrain his actions or volitions. [volition is defined as the power to choose]

Pursuit of Happiness: Again from Webster’s 1828 edition, happiness is defined as follows, emphasis added:

The agreeable sensations which spring from the enjoyment of good; that state of a being in which his desires are gratified, by the enjoyment of pleasure without pain; felicity; but happiness usually expresses less than felicity, and felicity less than bliss. Happiness is comparative. To a person distressed with pain, relief from that pain affords happiness; in other cases we give the name happiness to positive pleasure or an excitement of agreeable sensations. Happiness therefore admits of indefinite degrees of increase in enjoyment, or gratification of desires. Perfect happiness, or pleasure unalloyed with pain, is not attainable in this life.


In this very long attempt to understand just what our founders meant when they declared independence, I’ve examined the words they chose to begin this infamous document:

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.

In the process, an expanded, albeit less elegant, version has arisen that reflects our current use of language, and hopefully, the founders intent.

We believe the following truths are understood by all: that all men are brought into existence having equal worth, that they are freely given gifts by the One who brought them into existence, which are based on the law or will of God and conform to truth and justice, and may not be transferred or have any legal claims placed against them. These gifts include life, which begins at conception and continues until all organs cease to function; liberty, with no physical force to constrain actions or choices; and the pursuit of happiness, which comes from the enjoyment of good.

So how do we apply this today? How does it compare to the Bible? Can we stand on this statement and make informed, principled decisions about church and state and life in general? I’m asking each of my readers to mull this over and share your thoughts in a comment.

Next week (I promise, if the Good Lord is willin’ and the creek don’t rise) I’ll include your thoughts and try to apply this founding statement to the America of today.

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One Response
  1. Hercules Mulligan says:

    Wow, great post! I like the final “modernized” draft. :)

    I could probably go on and on about how to apply these principles in practical life, so I’ll try to keep this short …

    As for the statement’s comparison with the Bible: I think it is overall biblical, in the sense that the preamble requires that the laws of God be observed and honored by civil society.

    When it comes to liberty, however (and we all know this), it cannot be so unlimited that it runs into licentiousness. As I wrote in my first installment of “The Law of Liberty” a while back, liberty taken to an extreme is self-destructive.

    So, government must protect liberty by curbing the excesses of it. How far that power and restraint on the part of civil government is to go, must, in a large part, be tempered by (1) the laws of God, and (2) the government’s mandate to protect life and the “pursuit of happiness.”

    When I post Part 2 for my series on The Law of Liberty, hopefully I will deal with this in greater and more accurate detail.

    I don’t know when I’ll have time or brain juice, but hopefully I’ll do it in time for this coming FFQF.

    Which reminds me, I didn’t participate again this last week. :(

    Well, thanks for posting yours, and for patiently waiting for my response. :) Happy FFQF!