By Matt Higgins
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. —Declaration of Independence, 1776
Americans learn this phrase as school children and many can still recite it today, but far fewer understand the context — and even fewer apply it to their daily lives. It is clear that Louisiana does not live up to the ideal of this phrase, even though it is something most in this state would profess to cherish. Nevertheless, hope is not lost and Louisiana could live up to the ideals of this phrase in the 21st century.
Let me explain.
The rights enumerated in the Declaration are products of the Age of Enlightenment. This was a historical age in Europe and the colonies, where men (almost exclusively white) turned away from traditional authorities like the monarchy and church and sought explanations for phenomena based on natural causes.
It begs the question, then what did Thomas Jefferson mean by the “pursuit of happiness”? While this phrase is not explained in detail, based on the principles of the Enlightenment, we can conclude that it doesn’t mean to have as much fun as possible, what was referred to in the past as “hedonism.”
Indeed, modern health care methods for sound psychological health include restrictions on human appetites. This phrase means, I believe, the freedom and opportunity to pursue a livelihood that provides sustenance to you and your family, as well as the freedom and opportunity to develop knowledge and wisdom through learning of the natural world; and it means, gaining a deeper spiritual understanding, whatever one’s religious beliefs, even if they do not conform to church teachings.
These rights are enjoyed by Louisiana citizens to a degree that is the envy of billions in the world and, as a result, we Louisianians are fortunate. Nevertheless, the sorry state of liberty and rights in the world does not mean that there are no alarming conditions in this state that threaten these rights.
The Declaration states, “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 abolish it.”
It’s no secret state government under the administration of Gov. Bobby Jindal has failed to live up to the ideals of the Declaration. One could certainly write a long list of grievances against Jindal (all the ways he failed to uphold his duty). But he is on his way out, so our focus should be on those grievances that will linger after Jindal is gone.
There are several large entities whose goals infringe upon the natural rights of Louisiana citizens. Visiting a web site like provides a list of campaign contributors, broken down by industry, to each of Louisiana’s congressional delegates. Governments, of course, can be a threat to people’s liberties, but so can other entities. Jefferson wrote in a letter that he feared the banking industry as a threat to liberty more than a standing army.
The argument is not that entities like the oil and gas industry or health care industry are inherently threats to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. But in their present form, where they shower state and federal elected leaders with unlimited money through political action committees, these industries can exert an influence on the state for their own profits that can infringe upon the natural rights of citizens. For example, the oil and gas industry can usurp state law by convincing legislators to pass another law exempting them from restoring wetlands they destroyed while excising oil and gas from the state.
It would seem that the obstacles preventing Louisiana from ensuring natural rights for most of its citizens is too much to overcome, but consider what the 13 colonies faced in July 1776.
Few Americans remember the concluding sentence of the Declaration, but it is as important as the opening statement about rights and equality. It states, “And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.”
If there were something like bookies in the 18th century, then the odds that the 13 colonies would defeat the British – the most powerful nation in the world and the mother country – would have been high. The signers of the Declaration of Independence, while flawed as all human being are, were extraordinary because they were prepared to die, lose their land, and become historical footnotes – all because they believed in the principles of the Declaration. Comparing this historical reality to today, it should be a much easier challenge to transform Louisiana government so that it lives up to the ideals of the Declaration.
Let us hope that in the state elections in the fall, the people of Louisiana start that transition by exercising their reason and adhering to their responsibilities in order to ensure the natural rights of all men, and women, too.
Matt Higgins is an assistant professor of History at SUNO and a freelance journalist. He taught in the Jefferson Parish Public School System for four years.