When the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776, the American revolution had been ongoing for over a year. It is really a masterpiece of brevity, clarity and restraint. Although legislative and judicial branches of government existed in England, through various means, the King had usurped their authorities. There is restraint in the document- the King is never mentioned by name (it was King George) nor is anyone else named. It is the actions of the King, rather than the person under attack.
The Preamble is famous for the single sentence:
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.
This sentence does not require faith in a God or Creator, but a faith in equality of mankind. If there is a single word that stand out, it is “self-evident.” It just says, that this is something we know to be true. The liberties are not particular benefits given to the people. Rather they are something government can not take away from people. They are “inalienable rights.” Liberty as a fundamental right would extend from the emancipation of slaves to our participation in World Wars I and II.
The Declaration is not a working document to define liberties. Instead it identifies the various actions taken by the King in abusing his powers and usurping the power of the legislature and judiciary. The document simply states the King, by his actions, did not respect the rights of the people. The Bill of Rights as enacted 15 years after the Declaration, would specify the rights of Americans. The Constitution has been amended many times in the 200 year history, to extend the rights of citizens.
The First Amendment states:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.
Further rights as given in the amendments to the constitution are the right to a fair trial, right to be compensated when government confiscates personal properties, right against unreasonable searches and the right of all Americans to vote. These are citizens’ civil rights.
As decided by the Supreme Court, each of these rights is binding on every law and regulation at every level of government. The powers of the executive branch are kept in check by the independence of the judiciary branch and the freedom of the press. The Supreme Court hears cases today regarding First Amendment rights- see post script at the end of this blog.
A well informed public is the best way basic liberties can be maintained. I want to end this Fourth of July blog on a very positive note. Freedom of the speech, the independence of the courts and legislature, and the concept of equality of mankind, irregardless of race, color or religion, are still our core values. Democratic process is not the easiest way to get things done, nor are some of the results to everyone’s satisfaction, but the overall system is working quite well.
Enjoy the day!
PS: I will forgo adding links, but you may check out the latest Supreme Court ruling involving First Amendment Rights in the Trinity Lutheran Church case. I hope to add more on religious freedom in future blogs.
You can find the Bill of Rights and the Declaration of Independence at Wikipedia- happy searching.