We need political leaders who stand for human rights

On July 4, 1776, the Second Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence, written by one of the delegates from Virginia, Thomas Jefferson. In its most ringing passage, which has inspired people all over the world for almost 250 years, it proclaimed that “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 extraordinary statement virtually invented the concept of human rights, and has been the lodestar for our aspirations ever since. The effort to make those words become true has always been the engine that has driven us forward to be a better country, as those precious human rights have been extended and strengthened in countless ways, including to women and people of color.

One of the most notable things about the Declaration was that Mr. Jefferson — and the Congress — did not adopt the boilerplate language of “life, liberty, and PROPERTY’, which was the usual triumvirate of rights that Englishmen usually cited; the reason almost surely is that Jefferson, to his everlasting credit, believed that listing the right to property as one of the essentials would be used to underscore and perpetuate the right to own other human beings, which he, at this point in his life (age 33), was conscience-stricken about and was hoping would be soon on its way to a natural death as an unfortunate relic of the past.

Jefferson had written two years earlier that “the abolition of domestic slavery is a great object of desire in these colonies,” and he saw the Declaration as an important step in that direction.

Unfortunately, despite the noble words of the Declaration, our subsequent political history has been, from the beginning until today, an ongoing conflict between those who believe that human rights are preeminent, and those who believe that property rights are the foundation of freedom. This split started in the 1790s, right after the establishment of our Constitution, when a political party was organized to ostensibly oppose the “dangerous” policies of the federal government led by President Washington and Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton.

This party, led by none other than the Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson, and the leader of the House of Representatives, James Madison, called themselves Republicans, and claimed to be standing up for freedom from overweening federal power, but in reality they were a southern-based party that was also concerned about protecting slavery from possible interference by federal regulation or abolition. Mr. Jefferson’s party eventually became the Democratic party in the 1830s, and by the 1850s had become an openly and aggressively PRO-slavery party, focused upon expanding the number of slave states and repudiating the noble words of Mr. Jefferson’s Declaration as a “self-evident lie” and “fundamentally wrong.”

The Republican Party that arose in the 1850s was a reaction against this appalling reversal of our national heritage, in which property rights had become sacrosanct and human rights and true freedom had been ground into the dust.

When the southern Democrats refused to accept that a Republican president had been fairly and constitutionally elected in 1860, they attempted to break up the United States and establish a slave-based country, thus taking their obsession with property rights to a treasonous level.

In the middle of the Civil War that followed, President Abraham Lincoln explained the fundamental issue in an April, 1864 speech:

“We all declare for liberty; but in using the same word we do not all mean the same thing. With some the word ‘liberty’ may mean for each man to do as he pleases with himself, and the product of his labor; while with others the same word may mean for some men to do as they please with other men, and the product of other men’s labor. Here are two, not only different, but incompatible things, called by the same name — ‘liberty’.”

Mr. Lincoln and the Republicans thankfully won the war, saved the country from dismemberment, and ended slavery, but sadly, the basic conflict between those two versions of ‘liberty’ has persisted to this day. Prime examples would be the phony “state’s rights” argument against the federal government enforcing and protecting the civil and human rights of African-Americans; the opposition to the right of workers to organize and demand decent wages and working conditions from the owners of factories or businesses; the often violent opposition to the civil rights movement; the opposition to government regulations that have cleaned up polluted air and water, and now attempt to deal with the threat of climate change; the vociferous opposition to the extension of health care protection to millions of our fellow citizens through the Affordable Care Act; and appallingly, the opposition to virtually any effort to deal with the problem of gun violence in our country, which kills 96 Americans every day and which has caused more civilian deaths in the past 50 years than in all of our wars since 1775. It is clear that many politicians in Washington, and sadly in our own General Assembly, have determined that a person’s right to property in a weapon of war like an AR-15 is much more important than even one human life. Morally, this position is no different than that espoused by the slaveowners of the 1850s.

The Declaration of Independence stated that the purpose of government was to protect our rights, the most important of which is the right to LIFE. If our politicians do not understand that, they need to be voted out of office.

We need political leaders who stand for human rights as superior to any property rights. Not surprisingly, Abraham Lincoln put it best in one of his debates with Stephen Douglas in 1858, in which Mr. Douglas took the position that slavery was not a moral issue or a matter of right or wrong:

“It is the eternal struggle between these two principles — right and wrong — throughout the world. They are the two principles that have stood face to face from the beginning of time, and will ever continue to struggle. The one is the common right of humanity and the other the divine right of kings. It is the same principle in whatever shape it develops itself.”

That struggle continues. And it is up to us, the people, to make this country, the fountainhead of human rights for the world, continue to strive toward our noblest ideals.

Daniel Pritchett


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