Sunday, July 24, 2011

The Sovereignty of the Individual

Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness
The Sovereignty of the Individual
The Cornerstone
By Stephen L. Wilmeth


     The tenor of the Declaration of Independence was predicated on three things.  The first was the progression of thinking by the Americans in their attempt to qualify the impact of the tyranny imposed by England.  The second was the reality of the Revolution and the deadly consequences the members of the Second Continental Congress put themselves in if their actions resulted in failure.  The third was the authorship of Thomas Jefferson.  His largely unspoken participation in the proceedings would not be widely known.  His written participation would be known to the ages.
     As a document that rates as one of the most important in the history of the world, there is a contention there is an absence of new ideas in the Declaration.  In fact, many have suggested that various philosophers, especially the Englishman, John Locke, were the actual originators of the ideas.
     Knowing what we know of the approach of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson in researching an idea, that view has merit.  What is left out of the assessment, however, is the unique situation the Founders found themselves in at the time. 
     In those years, a number of things came into play not the least of which was the isolation of the colonies and the inability of the King to police all facets of the colonists’ lives.  The issues they faced were not new, but their ability to meet and to conceptualize matters specific to their existence without established political machinery in place was unique.  For a short time in our history such a situation prevailed.  It was a time of historic adjustments in the governing ideas of the world and it occurred when American men exercised their will to be free.  They were not granted freedom . . . they seized it.
     The Jefferson Influences
     If you have read the ‘Jefferson Bible’, you are compelled to think that he was strongly drawn to verse in an effort to discover his own thinking.  Was it possible that he didn’t have any preconceived concept of the text of the Declaration until he actually began to compose it?  To an extent, that was likely true.  Upon completion of the draft version of the document, his demonstration of anger at the Adams and Franklin adjustments is a marker of that Jeffersonian trait.  He may not have started with a complete roadmap to his conclusions, but he had created one through his concentration of authorship.  He was so confident of his presentation of summarized thoughts that he objected to differing views upon its conclusion.  He resented their unwelcome intrusion into his creation.
     The Ideas
     In attempting to understand what was implied in the references that nothing was new in the Declaration, one of the most recognizable phrases in the Declaration, “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness”, should be a place from which to work.  Was it a Jeffersonian phrasing invention or were there historical references from which he borrowed the words? 
     In a swath of Jefferson writings there are multiple references to liberty.  In fact, ‘Liberty’ was very much a part of his concentration and personal fascination.  It is so dominant in his writings that it is hard to argue that his constant reference was not something that caught his fancy in his research or any form of debate.  It was central to his thought process, and, although it may have taken root from other influences, it became part of his being.
     There are, though, no references to ‘Life’ and ‘Happiness’ in any other form of dedicated or expanded study.  Only in the phrase, “Life, Liberty, and pursuit of Happiness” do the words stand apart from any background writing.  Was the phrasing then something that was new?  Was it prompted by the Adams, Franklin, and Jefferson drafting team, or was it a particular concept that Jefferson was reaching for that focused on liberty . . . but liberty by itself was not fully adequate?
     If Jefferson was searching for a cornerstone concept for the entire document, his phrasing was arguably successful.  It is a beautiful, magnificent capsule of thought describing what he was trying to create.  Having said that, though, did he fully achieve what he was attempting to reach?  History says yes, but what if another author had been tasked to describe the concept itself?
     If Adams had been selected to draft the document, the monumental expression of hope and freedom that the Declaration became to the United States and the world may not have been duplicated.  The Adams perception of truth was more direct as opposed to the Jeffersonian search for ideas that elevated the thought to more reverent and lofty perfection.  An Adams document may have been far less colorful and flowing.  It might not have touched the hearts and souls of people who have read it and attempted to duplicate it since, but it would have been more clearly to the point.   
     With an Adams approach, a foundational question must be asked.  What is the essence of the Declaration and were the Fathers united in the single most important aspect of the work . . . a cornerstone?
     If the answer was yes, Adams could have been counted on to get to the very heart of the matter.  If that instruction had been further clarified to reduce that wonderful Jefferson phrase to a more concise thought, Adams may have come down to the replacement of the phrase with a single word . . . sovereignty.
     The assessment that the Declaration was a document with nothing new could not be further from the truth.  Jefferson was reaching.  He hadn’t found what he was seeking so he invented the phrase.  It was based on his steadfast dedication to liberty, but he needed something that expanded and concluded the idea.  That was his way of authorship.  He painted a conclusion and he didn’t know exactly where he was going until he discovered the ending. 
     What he grasped was new and yet it was as old as creation.  What it became was the fundamental building block of the American model.  It was the true cornerstone . . . Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.  Adams, though, would have told us to forget the phrasing and concentrate on the importance of sovereignty of the individual  . . . offered in trust to a government that was expected to honor that sacred trust.  No longer was a monarch, a king, a ruler, or ruling party entitled to exert an independent will on the citizenry.  It was the citizenry in which supreme authority was vested.  They were sovereign human beings from which all is granted, in which all is vested, and to whom all is reserved.
     Two hundred and thirty five years have passed since the Declaration of Independence was conceived and signed.  It is displayed as brilliantly as any work of art.  It has inspired the world and it must continue to inspire us.  As we view our country, though, we are reminded that we need a dose of John Adams.  That document wasn’t intended simply to become a work of art.  It was a reminder of the lessons that had been learned in the midst of a great and dangerous conflict. 
     President Adams would have reminded us that words are important, but the fundamental cornerstone of our system must be upheld at all costs.  Sovereignty is the basis of our system, and, yet, citizen sovereignty is being ripped apart today.  The whole has become the focus. 
     Ol’ John would have known full well what would happen to a wall if the cornerstone was pulled out and cast aside.  If he were alive, he would send Jefferson another scathing letter reminding him he had found yet another of his works that would have better served America if he had painted teeth  . . . instead of flowers.

Stephen L. Wilmeth is rancher from southern New Mexico.  “A comparison of the domination of federal land holdings today and the seizure of western colonial lands by King George in 1763 is a parallel correlation of degradation of citizen sovereignty.  Is there reason to worry when our government shows no inclination to uphold that sovereignty . . . to which all things are granted, in which all is vested, and to whom all is reserved?”   


I just wish Jefferson and stayed closer to Locke, who's trilogy was "life, liberty and estate."

Jefferson's fellow Virginian, George Mason, did so in the Virginia Declaration of Rights (adopted on June 12, 1776) which uses the phrase, "the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety."

If Jefferson had used Locke's or Mason's language our argument on behalf of property rights would have more "teeth".


NWPost said...


Floyd Rathbun said...

DuBois is correct, it is almost impossible to convince our current crop of public school graduates that the pursuit of happiness is a direct result of secure ownership of property.
Frederic Bastiat in The Law, 1858, moves the discussion back to life liberty and property. Too bad he wasn't there to argue with the authors as well.

Frank DuBois said...

Frederic Bastiat:

"Life, faculties, production—in other words, individuality, liberty, property—this is man. And in spite of the cunning of artful political leaders, these three gifts from God precede all human legislation, and are superior to it. Life, liberty, and property do not exist because men have made laws. On the contrary, it was the fact that life, liberty, and property existed beforehand that caused men to make laws in the first place."