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.
Yes, yes, I know there are problems with this. The men who wrote this were referring to men. The men who wrote this owned slaves. It’s not perfect, but it’s quite something.
Did Charlemagne concern himself with his subjects ‘pursuit of happiness’? Did the ancient emperors and kings desire to “promote the general welfare and ensure the blessings of liberty”? For most of them, doubtful.
And then there’s this:
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
~Emma Lazarus, The New Colossus
Yes, yes, I know there are problems with this, that we don’t live up to it, that we find bigotry and injustice directed toward immigrants, but that we ever dared to say it is a marvel! That we have constructed a governmental system over an enormous chunk of a continent and have built into that system care for the poor and vulnerable is astonishing. Yes, yes, we fail and we fight, but we hold it as a value and we always move toward it.
Our stated desire for community, our ambition of true brother- and sisterhood, these are the marvels of America.
Too much of our public square is dominated by rage, fear and greed. Too many injustices lift us off the ground in righteous anger. But what a marvel it is that we even care, that we take to the streets and rally behind people who don’t look like us, who aren’t part of our tribe. That we still cultivate a desire for justice is remarkable, compared to most other societies throughout the course of human events.
So we keep striving toward that most remarkable of goals: liberty and justice for all.
Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.
~ W. H. Auden, September 1, 1939