America’s Founding Fathers spent more than 1,300 words detailing point by point why they were taking the brave and dangerous step to declare the colonies’ independence from British rule.
What sticks in the minds of most Americans, though, about the Declaration of Independence is not all the examples of King George III’s tyranny but rather 35 words in the preamble to that list of grievances:
“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 244 years since those words were adopted, America and its people have often found them hard to live up to.
The nation’s founders, themselves, didn’t adhere to all of them. When thinking of equality, they excluded men who were not white and women of all colors.
We are still being challenged today to honor these bedrock principles of what it means to be American, and the constitutional guarantees that later flowed from them, such as freedom of speech and freedom of assembly.
We have become a nation of pitched camps about nearly every major crisis or issue we face, the latest manifestations being a pandemic, racial unrest and the resulting examination of symbols of our past.
When it comes to those enumerated “unalienable Rights,” we can’t even agree that the right to life is non-negotiable, as evidenced by 47 years of legalized abortion.
Liberty and the pursuit of happiness are equally prone to produce conflict, depending on the angle from which different parts of the citizenry are coming.
Take the current tension about wearing face masks.
Most health officials strongly encourage — and several states and cities have mandated — that people wear masks in an effort to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus. They claim that resistance to this preventative measure is one of the major reasons that the country, and particularly the Southern states, are seeing a recent rise in COVID-19 infections.
Those who comply with wearing masks often talk disdainfully about those who don’t. They accuse the noncompliant of being self-centered, of being willing to risk infecting others so as to not be discomforted by the mask or because they want to make a political statement — a la Donald Trump — that no one has the right to infringe on their personal liberty.
Although certainly there is a strong libertarian strain in this country’s DNA, one reason for the noncompliance may be resignation that, short of a vaccine, eventually most everyone will be infected and that a small percentage — mostly the elderly and those with other significant health problems — unavoidably won’t survive. From that perspective, wearing a mask is just prolonging the inevitable and impeding the attainment of herd immunity that could ultimately save more lives than the masks will.
As for pursuing happiness, Confederate iconography, such as the battle emblem that until this past week had dominated Mississippi’s state flag, offends many. Its removal, though, displeases others.
Whose happiness has to give?
For a century and a quarter, those who considered the state flag an homage to their ancestors who fought in the Civil War were deferred to. Even when it became undeniable that the flag did a lot of harm to the state’s image because of its association with slavery and racist groups, and even when various local governments and all of the state’s universities refused to fly it, the flag survived.
Now the balance of power has been flipped. An impressive coalition of business, religious, education and sports figures and organizations banded together in lightning speed to press their representatives in public office to make a symbolic statement that Mississippi is sensitive to its troubled racial history and is committed to doing better.
There was no way to please both sides of this debate, so lawmakers took the gamble that times and attitudes have changed enough that those who strenuously object to retiring the flag will be a small, even if vocal, minority. Mississippi will find out if that’s true when the replacement flag, still to be chosen, comes to an up-or-down vote in November. Hopefully, the majority of the state will agree that it’s time to put at least this difference behind it and move forward.