, Salem, MA


July 4, 2013

Column: Your country wants you to be happy

The signers of the Declaration of Independence felt that “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind” required them to explain why 13 thinly populated states clinging to the Atlantic coast should declare themselves independent of the world’s richest, most powerful empire.

And they did, in words every American of junior-high-school age and beyond knows — or should know: “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.”

These were radical, not to say heretical, ideas. In the monarchies of Europe and the empires of the East and Far East, man was patently not created equal — or else why would there be serfs and nobles? And happiness was a fortuitous, but by no means guaranteed, byproduct of an arduous daily life.

The lofty ideals of American independence are in the first two paragraphs of the declaration, which was formally adopted by the Continental Congress on July 4, 1776. The gritty realities behind the drive for independence are in the next 27 paragraphs, none of them longer than a single sentence.

These were grievances that clearly had been smoldering for some time. A colonial farmer headed off to a backbreaking day of work in the field likely did not have the time or energy to dwell on unalienable rights.

But if a British officer had shown up at his farmhouse door the night before, demanding that he and a half-dozen of the king’s soldiers be housed and fed, largely at the farmer’s expense, the farmer likely would have simmered with suppressed fury.

A too-strenuous objection to the behavior of his unwanted guests might find him hauled before a judge, dependent on the British crown for his office and salary, and exiled from the colonies.

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