Thomas Jefferson, undeniably the architect of the American brand of liberty, believed that freedom was bigger than America.
It was not that other nations had never experimented with a democracy or a republic. Rather, it was that Jefferson’s view of freedom went beyond politics or just another form of government. He was doubtlessly influenced by John Locke, but Jefferson refined the philosophical view of natural rights and possessed the acumen to navigate the political landscape, influence his fellows and design a nation around those beliefs.
Upfront, it must be acknowledged Jefferson was flawed and did not mete out the same freedoms he extolled, holding slaves until he died.
Still, Jefferson, who fanned the flames of independence that sparked the Revolution, spoke of personal liberties in ways that are timeless and perhaps more apropos now than at any time since the American Revolution and the Civil War.
Think about what these words mean in 2020: “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. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”
Jefferson held that our basic rights —the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness — are not gifts given to us by the government, not American rights, but instead basic human rights, natural rights, that belong to all of us.
These rights, he argued, are unalienable, that is no one on earth gave them to us, and no one can take them away.
These rights, he believed, are undeniable and should be universal, but unfortunately are not.
Who knows what was in Jefferson’s mind as he wrote those powerful words?
He was most definitely an enigma and a study in contrasts.
He was doubtlessly conflicted.
Nevertheless, the words are the words, and truth is truth.
Those most basic human rights — life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness — do not belong to us because we are Americans, or because we are male, or because we are wealthy, or because we are landowners, or because we are white.
We all, rich, poor, male, female, American, nonAmerican, Black or white are entitled to freedom and basic human rights simply because we are people.
Government does not give us our freedom or our natural rights.
In fact, government doesn’t really give us anything.
What government has, including any power it possess or money it holds, it has because we gave it.
So, all of us, regardless of gender, race, creed, color or station in life, possess certain unalienable rights and are not beholden to government for those rights.
We should, however, expect the government which we empower to protect our rights — all of our rights. Or, more importantly, the rights of all of us.
CNHI Deputy National Editor Jim Zachary is the editor of the Valdosta Daily Times and president of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation.