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Those Inalienable Rights

Eleven score and seven years ago, an unlikely collection of lawyers, businessmen and plantation owners gathered in Philadelphia and brought forth what remains one of the most remarkable social experiments in human history: the United States of America.

The new nation, as envisioned in the declaration signed that July day in 1776, was to be unlike any other nation before it. It was brought into being as a deliberate act of will, not to mobilize its citizens to some larger collective cause but to secure their individual rights. Its very founding document began with an enumeration of those individual rights, in a brief listing — life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness — that sounds as revolutionary today as it did 227 years ago. The purpose of the new government declared that day was no more and no less than to secure those rights. The government’s powers, as the delegates in Philadelphia reminded the world and themselves, were derived solely from the consent of the governed.

Over the years those truths have come to seem so self-evident as a model for human society that it’s necessary to recall how little in the American experiment was obvious or inevitable, then or since. Never before had a nation been created as an association of free individuals with no larger goal than securing human rights. Only a rare combination of pluck and luck allowed the colonists to defeat the armed forces of the British crown and secure the independence they had declared.

Clashing interests — economic, religious, philosophical — repeatedly threatened to tear the new nation apart. Definitions of liberty and individual rights would remain hotly contested for years. Religious freedom, a central tenet in the Founders’ world view, had to overcome stiff opposition from traditionalists who feared it would mean equality for “Jews, Turks and infidels.” It would be nine decades before slavery was abolished and the rights of life and liberty were extended to America’s black population. It took another half-century to extend full voting citizenship to women. Gay Americans won some measure of equality in law only last week. And none of those victories is final. America is still a work in progress.

Indeed, some of the truths that seemed self-evident to the founders when they signed Thomas Jefferson’s declaration in 1776 are as threatened today as they ever were. A broad and growing swath of our nation seems to have grown weary of the idea of rights and the primacy of the individual. New social contracts are tossed about that disparage human rights as a liberal hobbyhorse; “obligations,” “duty” and “virtue” are the new gold standard. Religious liberty, freedom of thought and the right to dissent are actually on the defensive these days, giving way to a bullying majoritarianism that at times threatens the very core of American freedom.

For all that, it’s a mistake to lose sight of what America meant and still means to the world at large. The nation is still a beacon to the poor and oppressed around the world. To Jews in particular, it offered a home safer and more welcoming than any nation ever had. And it’s still the place immigrants and refugees everywhere risk their lives to enter in search of a better life that is synonymous with America.

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