The blessings of Liberty have been experienced throughout history by a relatively small percentage of human beings.
Until the 17th century, when the age of reason took hold, human beings were no more than the chattel of pharaohs, emperors, kings, czars and caliphs, supported often by popes, bishops, and imams. It took millennia to establish the basic foundations of our innate human rights and centuries more to define them fully and create mechanisms to protect them in constitutions and law.
Pharaohs enslaved whole populations to die at the whip building pyramids in their honor. The Roman Emperor Crassus lined the Appian Way from Rome to Capua with over 6000 crucified men to make the point that he would not abide any rebels. Throughout the many empires and invasions from West to East and East to West there was horror, torture, and death to accompany the imposition of a new ruler. Those who survived the killing were often enslaved.
The Population Reference Bureau estimates that 108 billion people have inhabited the earth across the history of human existence. Only about one percent of all human beings who have ever lived have experienced liberty as experienced by citizens of the United States. It is only very recently that the value of the individual human being, constituted with rights, has emerged.
The philosophers and scientists of the Enlightenment, such as Francis Bacon, Isaac Newton, and John Locke, led a redirection of human history. Bacon introduced the scientific method of inquiry into the natural world. Newton, an English physicist and mathematician, led the scientific revolution and is regarded as one of the greatest scientists of all time. John Locke was an English philosopher who later in the 17th century built upon the ideas of Bacon and other period philosophers to introduce the concepts of “natural rights” and consent of the governed as the basis of “political legitimacy”.
In particular, the ideas of John Locke were of great interest to the founders of the United States and many appear in the Declaration of Independence as it conveys our foundational principles. The natural rights concept appears in the Declaration as “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 unalienable rights are innate. They are not granted as a legal right through the benevolence of a king or the decree of a president or prime minister. Rather, they are a birth right.
The Declaration also fully conveys the concept of political legitimacy within its text, stating that governments can only derive “their just powers from the consent of the governed.” This was a complete rejection of the monarchy. No longer would political power convey through inheritance of title, but only through the consent of the governed.
Nearly 240 years later, these same aspirations expressed by a young and newly declared nation are the desire of many and the reality for few. According to the Economist Group Democracy Index approximately 15 percent of the world’s 167 countries can be considered full democracies where the electoral process is legitimate and civil rights are assured. Less than 12% of the world’s population today can claim fully the rights and protections envisioned in the Declaration of Independence.
The Declaration lays forth our aspirations and foundational principles. The United States Constitution makes those aspirations and principles whole in form and substance to “secure the Blessings of Liberty.”
The Constitution was completed in 1787 and consisted of seven articles. The first three described the formation and powers of the Congress, Presidency, and Judiciary respectively, while the remainder were procedural, such as the process for amending the Constitution. The Constitution laid out the mechanisms by which the “consent of the governed” would be obtained and executed.
Eighteen months after the original signing of the Constitution, the Bill of Rights (the first 10 Amendments to the Constitution) was signed and forwarded to the states for ratification. It was subsequently approved and became an integral part of the Constitution in 1791. The Bill of Rights was the culmination of John Locke’s “natural rights” concept and secured in detail the fundamental rights necessary to liberty.
Of course, liberty was not the right of all U.S. citizens until the Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery, the Fifteenth Amendment enshrined the right to vote regardless of race or color, and finally the Nineteenth Amendment provided for women’s suffrage in 1920. Hence, it is little more than 100 years ago that all citizens of the United States fully participated as individuals in giving their consent to be governed and fully received their birthright to liberty.
Liberty and its blessings are rare in the human experience and fragile. Those blessed by it should protect it.