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What are the rights of 'life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness?'

Date: 7/9/2012

July 9, 2012

By G. Michael Dobbs

Here's another question for you folks that seems appropriate for discussion after July Fourth: what are the rights of "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" as noted in the Declaration of Independence?

What were those rights back in 1776 and what are they now in 2012? And does the Constitution and the Bill of Rights actually define and guarantee those rights?

Let's look at the quote in the context Thomas Jefferson presented it: "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. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security. — Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government."

Remember when Jefferson wrote the words "all men are create equal," slavery was alive and well, women could not vote, Native Americans were not considered as part of the solution, but rather as part of the problem. The Puritans had shown their religious intolerance by bouncing Roger Williams out of the Bay State.

Basically, it was the land-owning white guys who made the decisions.

When Jefferson wrote the Declaration, the colonists had been the subjects of a number of intolerable actions from the British authorities that he detailed in the document.

The Declaration is a specific document and Jefferson makes sure to detail why the colonists want their independence. The one bit of language, though, most people seem to remember is the one that is the least specific: "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."

Like all broad noble sounding phrases, it is open to wide interpretation. Does this mean I should have to tolerate the illegal actions of neighbors that affect my quality of life? Does this mean I should have access to affordable healthcare? Does this mean I shouldn't have to be X-rayed or groped at an airport? How about not having to worry about my life when I am old? Would Jefferson see a prevention of racial and gender discrimination through these words?

I don't know. I know what I would want them to mean: an acknowledgment that we have a responsibility to ourselves to live our own version of a constructive life and that we are to ensure that right for our fellow citizens.

If I could get into the Way Back Machine, I would pick traveling back to meet Thomas Jefferson at the time of the composition of the Declaration to ask him what he really meant.

If there were a time machine, there would be, I assume, a long wait of people to see him with similar questions.

Disagree? Drop me a line at or at 280 N. Main St., East Longmeadow, MA 01028. As always, this column represents the opinion of its author and not the publishers or advertisers of this newspaper.

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