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“The Declaration of Independence: Natural Rights and Two Men Rushing to Make a Deadline” by Clark Judge

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The weekly column from Clark Judge:

The Declaration of Independence: Natural Rights and Two Men Rushing to Make a Deadline
By Clark S. Judge: managing director, White House Writers Group, Inc.; chairman, Pacific Research Institute

Tomorrow we celebrate the 237th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, the Founders’ explanation not just of why they were separating from Britain but of what the new nation was to be built upon.

“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”: with these 55 words, they defined the United States and, as it turned out, us as Americans.

Every war we have fought has been to defend those 55 words. Every election has been about the day-to-day challenges of remaining true to them.

We all know that, in drafting the Declaration, Jefferson took from Locke that “life” and “liberty” were self-evident rights, while substituting the “pursuit of happiness” for Locke’s “property.”

So from where did “pursuit of happiness” come? The answer is William Blackstone’s 1765-69 Commentaries on the Laws of England, the still classic discourse on English Common Law.  Blackstone wrote, “‘[T]hat man should pursue his own true and substantial happiness.’  This is the foundation of what we call ethics, or natural law.” By fusing Locke and Blackstone, Jefferson rooted the American Revolution in natural law philosophy and its ancient and contemporary practice.

During Clarence Thomas’ 1991 Supreme Court confirmation hearings, Joe Biden, then chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, all but mocked Thomas’ adherence to the concept of natural law, as if Thomas himself were an 18th century anachronism.  Biden, of course, got it wrong.  The character and application of natural law is at the heart of our hottest contemporary debates.

What is your opinion on legalized abortion? If against it, you appeal to “the right to life.” If for it, you argue in terms of liberty (‘the right of a woman to control her own body”).  And always you grapple with the pursuit of happiness.

What are your thoughts on the various economic stimulus packages and the Sequester?  After all the technical sparring about fiscal multipliers and investment versus consumption, the debate comes down to differences over how to best preserve liberty and pursue happiness.

Today almost all Americans can say as Lincoln did, “I have never had a feeling politically that did not spring from the sentiments embodied in the Declaration of Independence,” by which both the Great Emancipator meant and the rest of us would mean in natural law.

But how was it that Congress picked Jefferson to draft the Declaration?  Here is John Adam’s account from an 1822 letter:

Mr. Jefferson came into Congress in June 1775, and brought with him a reputation for literature, science, and a happy talent of composition. Writings of his were handed about, remarkable for the peculiar felicity of expression. Though a silent member in Congress, he was so prompt, frank, explicit, and decisive upon committees and in conversation – not even Samuel Adams was more so – that he soon seized upon my heart; and upon this occasion I gave him my vote, and did all in my power to procure the votes of others. I think he had one more vote than any other, and that placed him at the head of the committee. I had the next highest number, and that placed me the second. The committee met, discussed the subject, and then appointed Mr. Jefferson and me to make the draft, I suppose because we were the two first on the list.

The subcommittee met. Jefferson proposed to me to make the draft. I said, ‘I will not,’ ‘You should do it.’ ‘Oh! no.’ ‘Why will you not? You ought to do it.’ ‘I will not.’ ‘Why?’ ‘Reasons enough.’ ‘What can be your reasons?’ ‘Reason first, you are a Virginian, and a Virginian ought to appear at the head of this business. Reason second, I am obnoxious, suspected, and unpopular. You are very much otherwise. Reason third, you can write ten times better than I can.’ ‘Well,’ said Jefferson, ‘if you are decided, I will do as well as I can.’ ‘Very well. When you have drawn it up, we will have a meeting.’…

We reported it to the committee…. We were all in haste. Congress was impatient, and the instrument was reported, as I believe, in Jefferson’s handwriting, as he first drew it.”

So drafting one of history’s loftiest documents came down to two men rushing to make a deadline.


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