Thomas Jefferson

Why We Should Toast Thomas Jefferson

By U-T San Diego Editorial Board

JULY 4, 2014

Between the nation’s spotty recovery from the Great Recession, its anguish over Iraq War deaths possibly being for naught and a dozen other troubling news narratives playing out across America, this Fourth of July might seem less than a propitious time to celebrate a holiday built on the pride we feel over the noble origins of our nation.

But such a glum take isn’t just inappropriate because we want holidays to be a happy time. It’s inappropriate because it is far too downbeat.

In the big picture, America is poised to continue to lead the world throughout the 21st century, thanks to our dominant position in nanotechnology, biotechnology and related life sciences — fields with the promise to transform energy, medicine, manufacturing, transportation and nearly every field of human endeavor. San Diego is poised to be at the center of these coming tech revolutions.

A key reason for our leadership is that the United States remains a powerful magnet attracting the best and brightest scientists and entrepreneurs to join the brilliant folks already here. It is no stretch to believe this leadership is related to the enduring power of the animating sentiments of the Declaration of Independence that was signed 238 years ago today. With the possible exception of President Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, no words resonate more through our history than the declaration’s preamble:

“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.

“That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, that whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government ... .”

The declaration’s author, Thomas Jefferson, declared there was nothing particularly original about any of these sentiments. But the declaration’s concise identification of individual happiness as a national goal, its affirmation of the necessity of the consent of the governed and its focus on what philosophers call the natural rights of mankind struck a chord around the world.

There are of course chapters in American history — sometimes long ones — where we can fault ourselves for not living up to our ideals, a list that starts with the awful historical stain of slavery. But ever since 1776, in fits and starts, we’ve been striving to do better.

And Americans’ greatest asset in this effort has been a founding document that identifies the government’s core purpose as being the protection of individual liberty. As long as that protection endures; as long as our government is controlled by the governed; as long as we remain a nation where people can actively and eagerly pursue happiness, we shall remain a vibrant and successful nation that is a beacon to the world.

So have a happy and safe Fourth — and consider a toast to Thomas Jefferson.