May 13, 2004 (Ira Pilgrim)


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.

from The Declaration of Independence, 1776

I was very fortunate to have a civics-history teacher in high school who encouraged his students to question. His name was Charles Cogan. I never knew what his opinions were because he never expressed them. I found out later that he eventually left teaching to become the head of the teacher's union in New York City.

I remember our discussion of the part of the Declaration of Independence that is cited above. I do remember that there isn't much about that paragraph that was factual, but I can't now distinguish between what my own thoughts were about it, rather than those of my fellow students. The critique goes something like this:

We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal. How about that? It seems to me self evident that the opposite is true and that there aren't many men who are actually equal. Is a genius the equal of someone with Down's syndrome? Is a physically perfect person the same as someone who is crippled, or blind, or deaf? In fact, it seems to me that there are very great differences at birth between men; and woman. So much for the validity of the first proposition. In Jefferson's time no one considered women as being equal to men. What's more, Jefferson and others were slave holders. People with colored skin weren't considered equal to people with white skin.

That they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights. It should seem obvious that if there are such things as "unalienable rights," that those rights have been more honored in the breach than in the observance. In short, those unalienable rights have been alienated for as long as people have existed, and frequently.

That among those rights are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness. Throughout history people have been regularly deprived of their life and liberty. As to the pursuit of happiness, everyone is entitle to pursue it, but only some have managed to catch it. What's more, some have pursued it at the expense of others.

Jefferson is usually credited with framing the Declaration. He was 33 at the time. What is surprising is that Franklin let it get by. He was 70 at the time and logic was his strong suit. However, Franklin was extremely tactful and was very careful not to offend any individual, particularly someone he considered to be a friend. My guess is that he did not criticize Jefferson's writing at all. The other three members of the committee that drafted the declaration were ages 47, 55 and 60. They were not critical either, so the declaration stayed as Jefferson wrote it.

Human utterances meant for public consumption are often illogical, but they sure do sound good.

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