Independence Day, a celebration of human dignity

U.S. Army Historical Archive
Not just a flag, but an idea / Photo: U.S. Army Historical Archive

WASHINGTON, July 4, 2015 — Someone once summarized the fundamental idea of America thus:

“The government cannot bestow dignity, and it cannot take it away … Our Constitution — like the Declaration of Independence before it — was predicated on a simple truth: One’s liberty, not to mention one’s dignity, was something to be shielded from — not provided by — the State.”

This idea is one of the fundamental ideas not just of America, but of Western civilization: Human dignity is not a creation of the state, nor a gift of the courts, but something intrinsic to our humanity. The advance of justice and human rights in the West has been no more than the ever greater understanding of this simple idea.

Many Christians believe that we were created in the image of God as his spiritual sons and daughters. In the most general terms, human nature carries with it traces of the divine. We are flawed, but infinitely precious.

Those who are not religious may still believe that we are something extraordinary, the only known case in the universe of stardust organizing itself into systems that ask about their own creation. In the human brain, the universe looks out at itself and ponders its own existence.

Slavery was an abomination not because it stripped people of dignity, but because it denied that they had any in the first place. Slave owners looked at slaves not with the reverence owed to something as inherently dignified as the human mind, but as objects to be used for their own benefit. They reduced human beings to mere things — if very economically valuable things — so no matter how kind and humane some slave owners might have been, their relationship with their slaves was based on contempt.

Tyranny is not the suppression of dignity, but the assertion that there is no such thing unless it is granted by tyrants. A watch or a pen can have a sort of dignity by virtue of its ownership by someone great or famous, but it’s a false dignity, just a greater desirability to collectors. These are still just things, with no real importance on their own but only value to the extent that they please us. That is how tyrants see their subjects.

“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.”

With these words, the Founding Fathers of America proclaimed an idea that had been growing in Western civilization from the time of the Greeks. We are valuable even if we have value to no one. We are dignified just because we are. No man can make me more or less dignified than I am. The servant can honor the king by his service as much as the king can honor the servant by his regard.

“That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

Because we have intrinsic dignity, we cannot be mere objects possessed by a person or a government. I don’t exist just as a source of funds for my government, my value is not determined by my usefulness to society or to the state. We do not exist just for the use of another. The state is our creature, it bows to us, and its legitimacy rests on its ability to protect our dignity.

The someone who wrote the words at the top of this article was Justice Clarence Thomas, as part of his dissenting opinion in Obergeffel, the same-sex marriage case decided last week by the Court. Some people are passionately opposed to elements of his opinion, but in this passage, Thomas affirms something that most Americans have always believed and still do believe: Our dignity and our rights are not created by the Constitution; they are protected by it.

If the Constitution is the operating manual of our republic, the Declaration of Independence is the statement of purpose. It’s that document that we celebrate today, the document that declared our worth and laid out the case for our separation from the British Empire.

In the 239 years since the Declaration was signed, we have yet to achieve all the ideals laid out in it. We have yet to treat every human life as dignified, though through Civil War, civil rights marches and changing laws and attitudes we’ve made great strides. A nation that once restricted full participation to landed white men now better understands that “all men” really means all men, and all women too. It means that regardless of race, sex, gender, religion or ethnicity.

We still have far to go. Liberty isn’t an end result, but a set of behaviors and habits. Lessons learned are often forgotten, but this is a nation built on a great ideal. Our nation will eventually fail, as all nations do, and it will probably fail when it no longer believes in its ideals. But as long as there are free men and women who can remember, the Declaration of Independence will survive, even long after America is gone. That is something worth celebrating.

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