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Thursday, July 2, 2009

OBQD: History of a Free People

Today’s old book quote comes from History of a Free People. (Who doesn't love that title?) It’s a textbook written by Henry Bragdon and Samuel McCutchen, and published by The MacMillan Company in 1954. 

This is the same MacMillan that published the textbooks you probably had in school. Since self-reliance goes hand-in-hand with a “localist” spirit, and because our education-- and our kids’, MacMillan Education continues to publish textbooks-- was based on information in texts from this company, I was curious to discover what sort of company MacMillan was and is. Alas, according to Wikipedia, MacMillan has gone the way of so much of American culture: "The company was one of the oldest independent publishing houses until 1995 when a 70% share of the company was bought by German media giant Georg von Holtzbrinck Publishing Group ... . Holtzbrinck purchased the remaining shares in 1999, ending the Macmillan family's ownership of the company."

Back to the quote...

It comes from the chapter titled, “American Revolution” and is part of a longer discussion of The Declaration of Independence. Some thoughts at its conclusion. Hope to hear your as well.


The preamble. Of the three sections, the preamble is the most important. It sets forth a philosophy of human rights and democracy which has affected man’s behavior ever since...

[Then] comes the famous sentence, the basis for all that follows:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.

Few sentences in all human history have been so debated. It has been endlessly pointed out that ... rights are not “inalienable”: they are taken away by tyrants and given away by men unwilling to defend them. These criticisms, however, are based on a mis-understanding of Jefferson’s original meaning.

All men are created equal.” “Equal” does not mean “equal in abilities” nor “equal in circumstances” but simply “equal in rights.” As all men are created before God, so they are equal in God-given rights. Therefore society should see that men are equal before the law and that they should have equal opportunities. “Inalienable” does not mean that a tyrant is unable to take away men’s rights, but simply that he may not do so without violating divine law. Nor may an individual legally give away his rights. A contract to sell yourself into slavery is null and void from the first, because your God-given rights are not yours to abandon. 


This passage is not a scholarly work by any stretch of the imagination. I don’t think it was intended to be. Recall, this text was published in 1954. The Cold War was in full swing. It was intended, I suppose, to communicate to students the absolute correctness of the American “philosophy of human rights and democracy.” 

My favorite line: [Rights] ... are given away by men unwilling to defend them.


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