". . . and having done all . . . stand firm." Eph. 6:13


There Is No Liberty or Pursuit of Happiness without Life

July 9, 2024

This year, I began a new Fourth of July tradition with my family and read out loud the Declaration of Independence to my wife and daughter. I will admit that it has been years since I’ve read the document in full, so I was thus struck anew by the wisdom, clarity, and moral courage with which that Declaration was penned.

It is striking also that the 56 men who so famously signed that Declaration knew that they were, essentially, signing their own death warrants, but so committed were they to the principles enumerated therein, that they considered their lives a fair price to pay for the securing of these principles. “And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor,” the Signers wrote.

Certainly, the British would have hung the men as traitors had the Revolutionary War not been won. In a famous story, one of the signers, after putting his name to the page, urged his fellow Americans to “hang together” and not to allow frictions, rivalries, disputes, or any such to divide the united front presented to the British. Ever the wit, Benjamin Franklin then responded, “We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.”

The Declaration of Independence, the charter for this great nation’s founding, was written against “a long train of abuses and usurpations” and guaranteed the protection of “certain unalienable Rights … among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” It is no mere alliterative turn of phrase that prompted the Founding Fathers to place “Life” first in this brief litany and to elevate it above other freedoms by name. All other rights stem from this one. No man may be free if he is dead, no man may pursue happiness if he is dead, no man may practice his own religion or speak freely or bear arms or stand trial by a jury of his peers if he is dead. All other rights — not merely their exercise but their very existence — rest upon this one foundational right.

Much of what has been recognized, throughout legal history, as a “right” is rooted in the writing of the 13th century Dominican philosopher Thomas Aquinas, recognized as an intellectual giant throughout the ages. Aquinas’s articulation of a “right” is rather “that which is right.” In his voluminous “Summa Theologica,” Aquinas explicated that there is a right to life — that is to say, respect for and preservation of life is “that which is right.” Aquinas wrote that “it is unlawful to kill any man, since in every man though he be sinful, we ought to love the nature which God has made, and which is destroyed by slaying him.” Of course, Aquinas continues, the execution of grave sinners whose sins threaten to corrupt or grievously wound the common good is lawfully permissible. “On the other hand the life of righteous men preserves and forwards the common good, since they are the chief part of the community. Therefore it is in no way lawful to slay the innocent,” Aquinas concludes.

The notion of “rights” as commonly used today is rooted in Aquinas’s teachings but articulated by the scholastics of the School of Salamanca, particularly in response to the rise of liberal and atheistic philosophy in the 16th and 17th centuries. John Locke, whose writings directly and heavily influenced the thinking of the Founding Fathers, considered life to be a right derived only from God, arguing that humans, being created by God, are His property, according to one of Locke’s definitions of property.

The Founding Fathers themselves seemed to take this view, writing that human beings are “endowed by their Creator” with this right to life. This was, again, not simply some effort to lend a grandiose theological flair to the Declaration, but was a statement of fact, as evinced by the document’s concluding appeal “to the Supreme Judge of the world…” These men recognized — as had been articulated by Aquinas, centuries of Christian scholastics, and even John Locke — that the right to life was, at times, in need of the state’s protection, but was not a right conferred by the state. God alone holds that authority, God alone is that “Supreme Judge” and Supreme Authority who bestows this most fundamental of rights.

In short, the Founding Fathers based the charter for America’s founding on an eternal moral code. They did not write a founding document that suited their own political agendas, but they rather suited their political agendas to what they knew to be moral truth.

Long the party of proud patriots, the Republican Party decided on Monday to surrender its devotion to the most foundational right, the right to life. The vision of the Founding Fathers, the eternal moral truth upon which the rest of the nation’s many virtues and great goods are built, was mostly abandoned in favor of political expediency. The first Republican President, Abraham Lincoln, split the nation with a brutal Civil War, following in the same spirit of the Founding Fathers and their devotion to moral truth. Slavery, Lincoln became convinced, was a moral evil. Far more evil is the horror of abortion, the mass slaughter of innocent unborn children by the tens of millions. But unlike Lincoln, the Republican Party of today seems to have more interest in testing the cultural winds than in casting a vision for a society based on moral truth, a fact the newly diluted GOP platform makes abundantly clear.

“Courage,” G.K. Chesterton wrote in 1908, “is almost a contradiction in terms. It means a strong desire to live taking the form of a readiness to die.” This was certainly true of the Founding Fathers and the men who signed that Declaration of Independence. Each man who signed his name there risked his life, in the hopes of securing the right to life for himself and his children and his children’s children.

Not a single man who signed that Declaration did so for the sake of political expediency. The “practical” or “pragmatic” route would have been not to start a Revolutionary War and take on the greatest military power in the world but to “suffer, while evils are sufferable…” Instead, these men took the difficult route, not bothering about consensus or the status quo, but staking their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor on a series of eternal moral truths.

As I read the Declaration of Independence to my wife and daughter, I can only pray that the Republican Party might once again be the home of patriots, the sons and daughters of the Founding Fathers, not political opportunists cowering before “consensus” and polling data.

S.A. McCarthy serves as a news writer at The Washington Stand.