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Land of the Free, No Longer Home of the Brave

July 8th, 2021 by dk

“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.” Over the past 250 years, we’ve changed our ideas but not our ideals.

We no longer limit these self-evident truths to (white) men. We don’t always ascribe their endowment to a Creator. We’re less sure that certain Rights are inalienable. We parcel out those rights to some while denying them to others, as if human rights are a limited commodity or a consumable product.

Our largest reboot of Thomas Jefferson’s majestic preamble to the Declaration of Independence concerns the triad at the end of his first sentence. Our understanding of these values changed slowly, so we haven’t really noticed.

“Life” hasn’t changed much, though anti-abortion activists would disagree. “Liberty” and “the pursuit of happiness” most definitely have changed, and dramatically. We repeat the words that our forebears uttered, but we’ve given those words new meanings.

Happiness no longer connotes connectedness with others. Happiness represents to us the absence of conflict, struggle, or pain. Sacrifice is viewed in opposition to happiness. Once sacrifice was understood as the necessary precursor to happiness. We see ourselves as entitled to happiness, not stewards of a gift. We want the effect without its cause.

The enlightenment ideal of happiness was rooted in the classical Greek concept of “eudaemonia.” Collective striving — the pursuit — aimed to achieve a common good. Sharing a cup of sugar with someone in need benefited your future sugarless self. You participated in your neighbor’s barn raising so he would join yours. 

We’ve forgotten this: Everyone’s happier when everyone’s happy.

When happiness included obligations, it was self-limiting. Eudaemonia did not require endless barn raisings or limitless sugar sharing. Those limits created circles that defined our communities. Society grew strong when those circles were chained together. Now we strive endlessly for more and more private bliss.

Likewise, liberty no longer means what it meant to Jefferson and his ilk. John Adams wrote, “I would define liberty to be a power to do as we would be done by. The definition of liberty to be the power of doing whatever the law permits does not seem satisfactory.”

Thomas Paine echoed the pact that had won the Revolutionary War: “He that would make his own liberty secure, must guard even his enemy from oppression; for if he violates this duty, he establishes a precedent that will reach to himself.”

Jefferson agreed: “It behoves every man who values liberty of conscience for himself, to resist invasions of it in the case others.”

Our modern ideas about freedom were captured in 1966 by the Oscar-winning lyrics to “Born Free”: “Born free, as free as the wind blows / As free as the grass grows / Born free to follow your heart / Born free, and life is worth living / But only worth living / ‘cause you’re born free.”

Do you hear sacrifice or commonality in this depiction of freedom? I don’t.


Don Kahle ( writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and archives past columns at

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