The Power Of An Idea -- And The Need To Show Up


Thomas Jefferson laid the hand-scrawled document before Benjamin Franklin and watched for a reaction.

"We hold these truths to be self-evident," wrote Jefferson, "that all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and Property."

Franklin reread the opening. The Continental Congress had originally asked either Franklin or John Adams to draw up the draft, but decided they were each so controversial that they might alienate potential supporters. So they drafted the quiet, intense Jefferson -- a student of political philosophers like John Locke and a man of deep intellect.

Hmmm, mused Franklin. How about "Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness," he suggested.

The change was perhaps the most prominent of some 90 edits in Jefferson's draft, the signing of which we celebrate -- after a brave, hopeful, sometimes bloody 232-year pursuit of both liberty and happiness.

Most of the declaration was devoted to listing the things King George did to provoke the revolt. But we best remember the then-radical notion that every human being has certain rights, which justify revolt against any government that abuses or disregards those rights. The sole purpose of government, asserted Jefferson, was to protect and secure those rights. This indeed seems self-evident today, but at the time the idea challenged nearly every government on the planet.

"Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes...But when a long train of abuses and usurpations...evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government."

So that is the first great lesson of the Declaration of Independence -- the transcendent power of a great idea. Never mind its inconsistencies. Never mind the continued practice of slavery. Never mind that the vote was initially limited to property-owning white males. Never mind that any law limits liberty. In time, the idea of natural rights would change everything.

And the second great lesson of the Declaration of Independence lies in the blood and struggle necessary to achieve that promise - thanks to those who showed up.

Only about one third of the residents of those 13 colonies rose up to fight for that liberty, so boldly invoked by Jefferson. Another third remained loyal to the king -- and the rest stood to the side, waiting to see how it would all turn out.

So what we really celebrate this weekend is the power of an impassioned minority in the grip of a great idea.

Of course, we celebrate that idea -- and that sacrifice -- every day in the course of living in the (mostly) free country our forefathers paid so dearly to pass along to us.

The fireworks, the Main Street Block Party, the tents pitched alongside the East Verde, the couples at leisure on the swale of the park -- these all betoken the fruits of that struggle and the blessings of that liberty.

But to honor the sacrifice that made it possible, stand not with upturned face at the fireworks show chewing your free hot dog -- go instead to the memorial to the nation's war dead standing silently in that same park.

And if you would honor that idea and that sacrifice, then you must be one of those who shows up.

For we make a fresh commitment to that struggle of the generations every time we make it into the polling booth. Two citizens standing in that park debating the Iraq war and the irritated citizen standing at the town council podium complaining about roundabouts, each renew that struggle for liberty -- and the peculiarly American pursuit of happiness.

For Mr. Franklin did not actually promise happiness -- only its headlong pursuit.

That declaration we celebrate this weekend offers proof positive that ideas matter -- and also that history depends on the one-third who show up.

Besides -- as Benjamin Franklin observed upon adding his name to the bottom of hallowed document: "We must hang together, or we shall all hang separately."

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