Before the ink was dry on The Declaration of Independence (1776), Thomas Jefferson’s iconic claim, “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,” was open for further consideration.
Jefferson’s contemporaries certainly heard the clear echo of Britain’s John Locke, whose “Second Treatise on Civil Government” (1690) asserted certain inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the possession of property. Perhaps they wondered about Jefferson’s revision of Locke’s natural law that turned toward “their Creator.” More likely, they mused about how mere happiness might have replaced Locke’s more elitist claim that property ownership was a blessing rooted in nature.
Regardless, the question of rights and their association with liberty was raised.
In the years following the Declaration — and the continuing war with Britain — the further considerations of the meaning of liberty continued. While the war continued to rage, the Founders moved forward with a first draft of the Constitution that was ratified in 1788, some five years after the war ended.
Over the next three years, the pressing concerns of those who thought the Constitution was deficient on matters of individual liberties was the crucible that gives citizens of the United States their honored Bill of Rights.
Liberty and rights have been the two sides of a single coin since the birth of the Republic. And, of course, the coin has the value of justice
The preamble to the Constitution identifies five purposes: “establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.” The Bill of Rights rounds out the aspirations of the Founders.
So, now, we have three things to consider: justice, liberty, and rights.
At the same time the first generation of the Republic was sorting out the principles of justice, liberty, and rights through debates emanating from the Declaration and codified in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, there was a groundswell of protests to the institution slavery.
Slavery was part of the Jamestown settlement (1619). Soon there were slave ships made in New England joining European vessels establishing the lucrative economy of trading human beings from West and Central Africa for tangible goods from the New World. The Middle Passage, a triangular sea route linking West Africa with the Americas, laid the foundations for struggles for justice, liberty, and rights in Europe, the Americas and Africa.
Although slavery remains as a stain on the history of the West, the principles that fueled the abolition of slavery — justice, liberty, and rights — continue to burn brightly in our one world.
By 1820, Jefferson was a decade away from the White House and only six years shy of the grave. When the Missouri Compromise was passed, allowing Missouri to enter the Union as a slave state, Jefferson wrote to his friend, John Holmes, that the news was “like a fire bell in the night, awakened and filled me with terror. I considered it at once as the knell of the Union. it is hushed indeed for the moment. but this is a reprieve only, not a final sentence.”
During Jefferson’s waning years his iconic claim of the self-evident equality of all humanity was waxing. A growing abolition movement was strengthening in Europe and the Americas. There was a steady stream of nations banning the slave trade and, then, abolishing slavery as an economic option.
Many abolitionists, especially in England and in the United States, were women. As they invested themselves in the work to end slavery they became increasingly keen to note that they, too, were second-class residents.
The principles forged in the founding documents of the Republic — justice, liberty, and rights — were directed to women’s rights. On 19 July 1848 in upstate New York, the Seneca Falls Convention opened. It was the first convocation in the Republic called and led by women.
The conveners were Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, strong women who had learned the skills of prophetic resistance in the company of other international leaders in the abolition movement.
On the second day of the convention, Frederick Douglass and a few other men addressed the assembly. Also present was 28-year-old Susan B. Anthony, who would become the moral and spiritual force behind the Women’s Suffrage Movement that finally culminated in the 19th Amendment to the Constitution.
In February 1965 Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., addressed the congregation of Temple Israel in Hollywood, California. That night the principles of the Republic — justice, liberty, and rights — rarely have burned brighter when King said, “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” Follow the arc.
Next week: Following the arc from emancipation to suffrage to civil rights, including the rights for LBGT citizens of the Republic.
Richard F. Wilson is the Columbus Roberts professor of Christianity and chair of the Department of Religion at Mercer University.