In my opinion, the best part of John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address on January 20, 1961, had nothing to do with asking anyone anything. The moment to remember was when he said:
“The world is very different now. For man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life. And yet the same revolutionary beliefs for which our forebears fought are still at issue around the globe - the belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state, but from the hand of God. We dare not forget today that we are the heirs of that first revolution.”
It is interesting, even sadly ironic that what is going on in our nation right now does resemble an old revolutionary spirit, but not necessarily that of Lexington, Concord, or Philadelphia. In fact, a case can be made – if one looks closely – that the spirit of 2009 is more like the spirit of 1789 than 1776.
The American and French Revolutions are linked in our minds because of chronology; but they were vastly different affairs. One led to a new birth of freedom; the other to terror and tyranny. That one also became the model for horrors to come.
As our nation morphs its way along, en route to becoming what some liberal diehards very much want it to be, a significant number of people would seemingly prefer “Liberty – Equality – Fraternity” over “Life – Liberty – and the Pursuit of Happiness.” And it is in the parsing of those vitally important words that we find the keys to understanding where we came from, where we are, and where we are going.
One revolution was about individual rights and dreams. The other was about “the people” as a group and the highest virtue being “the greater good.” Can you guess which one is which?
When Thomas Jefferson wrote about “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” in the Declaration of Independence, he was borrowing from 17th century English philosopher, John Locke, whose triad was “life, liberty, and the pursuit of property.” Jefferson’s use of this language was clearly designed to describe the rights of individual people to live free, be free, and freely pursue their dreams in a free marketplace. Those thoughts were very much in presence in that Philadelphia birthing room.