In The Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson, uses the phrase, “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” According to Gary Wills, author of many books on America and some of its most famous people, Jefferson was not hiding anything nor meant to mislead anyone with the phrase. In all of Jefferson’s writings he chose his words very carefully to make sure he was saying just what he meant. Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness were the words he chose, and in that order, for what he wanted to express.
The order is important. It places life first, then liberty followed finally by the pursuit of happiness. It was clear that the most important goal of government, as he saw it, was to help protect life. Liberty and the pursuit of happiness are very important, but when it comes to the balance between all of them, he gave life the first position.
The Declaration of Independence declared the Colonies separation from the English government so that a new nation could formed. But, Jefferson and others, still felt a strong need for government. With a government they could enforce a common standard of behavior within and defend against invaders. This common goal was to be done in balance with between life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness as evidenced by the phrase.
After the misstep of the Articles of Confederation, the Constitution was created. In that document, the liberties that we enjoy in America were recognized by the newly formed government. A government formed to provide a safe environment to enjoy our liberties and to pursue our happiness.
Those liberties clearly take a second position to a safe environment. Jefferson and others did not intent government to value rights over harm, that would be chaos. This is true both from the order of his famous phrase, but also because of the very reason government exist. If, events or circumstances can be demonstrated to cause or have the possibility of harm, then what ever liberties we may have need to be limited to maintain order and safety. To amplify, government can take action to limit liberties, if, and only if, it clearly demonstrates that harm would result if the limitation were not enforced.
We have the right to free speech, except in a crowded theater when we yell fire. We have the right to own property but will lose the right to that property if we don’t pay our taxes. We have the right to bear arms but can’t use them to hunt in the city. Even the Constitution guarantees our right to Habeas Corpus unless “the public safety may require it” to be suspended.
Our liberties are important, but have no value if they can’t be enjoyed in a safe environment. Staying alive; life; is more important than all the liberties we have.