Over the past half year, I enjoyed the enlightening experiences of reading "Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power," attending the play "1776" and seeing the movie "Lincoln." These experiences vividly reminded me of our country’s founding principles — most notably this powerful and unique sentence in the Declaration of Independence: “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.”
This founding statement is unique among nations because of its commitment to and faith in individual possibilities — and all the good that can mean for individuals and society. From birth, U.S. citizens were to be judged on their merits, not by class, race or other secondary factors. We would value character, ambition, initiative, optimism, self-discipline, education, success and plain old hard work.
Clearly, over two centuries since our founding we have still not completely fulfilled the stated belief that all are created equal. Almost 90 years passed before we formally addressed the evil of slavery by declaring it illegal and another half century before we formally recognized gender equality in voting. While not to excuse them, these unfortunate delays were to some extent caused by the loftiness of our goals relative to our starting point and early history as a nation.
Worth noting is the unalienable individual right of “pursuit of happiness.” Regardless of how each of us may define happiness, we do not have a right to it, only a right to pursuing it. When we explicitly or implicitly tell those on the lower rungs of the socioeconomic ladder that they are entitled to happiness, however each of them may define it, we contradict our nation’s key founding principle.
More directly, we lower our expectations for them and their expectations for themselves. By pandering and pampering them, and telling them that their well-being lies in taking from those who have succeeded rather than earning it themselves, we condemn them and probably their children to being stuck on similar low rungs of that ladder. The numbing, excessive free stuff they can undeservedly and/or illegally get today is likely to ruin them and their children tomorrow.
We will always have some citizens who are truly down and out, who have been devastated by circumstances. They deserve our concern and care which always has been and will continue to be provided in the United States by family, religious organizations, community groups or government. We, as individuals and a nation, are most compassionate and generous.
My hope is that we will find a growing number of leaders at all levels in the public, business, academic and volunteer sectors who will reexamine and support our nation’s founding principles — who will study Jefferson and Lincoln, flawed as they were — and will appreciate the lessons learned during more than two centuries of striving to act on those principles.
Our plans, policies, processes and procedures should be guided by those principles. We need to build on our country’s foundation by expecting the best of each of us. While you or I cannot select the rung on which we enter the world, if we are dissatisfied with that starting position, we are in the best place on Earth to move to higher rungs.
In a rapidly-changing world, our nation’s unique founding focus on the powerful and unique rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness can reinvigorate our nation — and may be a beacon or model for other nations.