While the Declaration of Independence is primarily a political document, there are lessons that we can learn from it that will challenge us to become better men and better at being men. In mid-June of 1776 Thomas Jefferson was tasked with writing a document that would set forth the reasons that the 13 colonies should separate from England. The words that he composed are worth exploring, not only for their historical significance, but also for their depth of content. Let’s take a look at what Jefferson wrote.
When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume, among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and of nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
Simply put, Jefferson is stating that when people or groups decide it’s time for them to separate, they owe the other side an explanation of the reasons for the separation.
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, laying its foundation on such principles, and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.
The first sentence here is probably the most well-known in the entire document. Nearly everyone who knows anything about the Declaration of Independence can quote it. It means that people are inherently free, that they should be able to choose to live as they see fit. Beyond that, it defines the role of government as securing the people’s right to live in such freedom and recognizes our right to get rid of governments that fail to fulfill that role.
Prudence, indeed, will dictate that governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and, accordingly, all experience has shown, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.
Jefferson makes it clear that we are not to separate for “light and transient causes”. Instead, we should instead be patient and deal with the troubles and conflicts that are inherent in any relationship.
But, when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object, evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government, and to provide new guards for their future security. Such has been the patient sufferance of these colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former systems of government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over these states . . . . In every stage of these oppressions, we have petitioned for redress, in the most humble terms. Our repeated petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A prince, whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.
Here Jefferson notes that the colonies aren’t simply being flighty or sensitive; they’ve been the subject of a long history of abusive acts. They’ve pointed out these acts and implored the other side to change, but their requests have been met with further wrongdoing. This history shows the character of the other party as one who is simply abusive. While the colonies have put up with this behavior for a season in an attempt to maintain the relationship, it’s clear that the other party is not going to change, making separation necessary.
Nor have we been wanting in attentions to our British brethren. We have warned them from time to time of attempts by their legislature to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us. We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here. We have appealed to their native justice and magnanimity, and we have conjured them by the ties of our common kindred, to disavow these usurpations, which would inevitably interrupt our connections and correspondence. They too have been deaf to the voice of justice and of consanguinity. We must, therefore, acquiesce in the necessity, which denounces our separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, enemies in war, in peace friends.
Jefferson reminds the British people, those on the periphery of the relationship, of how they’d been told of the abusive behavior of the King. They’d been warned that something had to change if separation were to be avoided, but those warnings had gone unheeded. As a result, separation has become necessary. However, despite the separation from the mutual friend, the colonies desire to remain in friendship with those on the periphery and caught in the middle of the conflict.
We, therefore, the representatives of the United States of America, in General Congress assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the name, and by authority of the good people of these colonies, solemnly publish and declare, that these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be free and independent states; that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the state of Great Britain is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that, as free and independent states, they have full power to levy war, conclude peace, contract alliances, establish commerce, and to do all other acts and things which independent states may of right do. 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.
Jefferson concludes by announcing that the colonies, with a conscience cleared by the heavens, are separated from England as free and independent states and that this independence is supported by the full resources of the signers of the document.
Lessons to be Learned
Lesson Number One: Give people space to pursue happiness. We’re all different in our preferences and interests. While men need to be protectors, that doesn’t mean that all men need to love combat sports or weapons. We should all have a basic competence in those things, but not everyone is going to love them. While all men should be providers, not all men will provide in the same manner or using the same methods. While all men should lead their families, not all men have the same personality, so what leading looks like for one man will not look the same for another man.
Don’t try to make your masculinity look the same as someone who has a different personality or different interests. Be strong, be courageous, develop masculine skills, lead your family, love your woman, and stay connected to other men – what that looks like will differ from person to person.
Lesson Number Two: Be patient and willing to work through conflict in relationships. Every relationship will have conflict. If you ever look at someone and wish you had a relationship like theirs because “they never fight”, just realize you’re chasing a myth. In fact, a lack of conflict simply means that the relationship has not progressed to the point where the parties are being honest about their desires and preferences. They’re still being polite. Once they get closer and start being honest, conflict will emerge. But that conflict shouldn’t end the relationship. The parties should hang in and work through it.
Remember the first lesson above. People are different, and different doesn’t necessarily mean wrong. If you set out to make all of your friends like you, you’ll end up without friends; at best, you’ll end up with groupies, people who don’t reveal who they really are just so they can stay connected.
Give people their space to be different from you and be willing to adjust to make the relationship work. Likewise, don’t let anyone require that you do everything their way. Be yourself. Every relationship requires compromise, but it requires compromise of both sides. If you’re always the one compromising, you’re not in a relationship, you’re on the wrong end of a dictatorship.
Lesson Number Three: Not every relationship is worth salvaging. We are social beings. As I’ve written before (see here and here), isolation is a killer for men. However, there times when a relationship cannot or should not be salvaged. When you’ve exhibited patience, when you’ve made the other person aware of your needs and preferences, when you’ve compromised and adjusted, and your efforts have regularly been met with disdain or disinterest, move on. Preserving your inner peace, your joy, your dignity, and making a wise investment of your time sometimes require that you end relationships. Sometimes separation is necessary, albeit as a last resort.
Lesson Number Four: Find a mission worthy of your life, your fortune, and your sacred honor. I find these words to be the most powerful words of the entire Declaration. Those who signed their names below knew that they were signing their own death warrant if the war, which had been going on for about a year and was not going particularly well, was lost. Still, they signed because they believed, because they knew that this cause was worthy of all that they were and all that they had. To find such a cause and devote yourself to it fully, to lead your family in it, to use your strength, courage, skill, relationships, and resources to achieving it – this is the man’s life. I hope you and your family have a wonderful Fourth of July. Godspeed.
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