The City Upon A Hill
Berny Belvedere

Couldn’t the assertions of the Declaration not be goals for an idealized society but understood as definitional facets of a self-governing one? That ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’ were not goals for the state to pursue but were the markers of a self-governing society? Wouldn’t this mean that they are not things we aspire toward but, instead, must be axiomatically assumed if we are going to create a system of rationalism and atheism (and I don’t use the latter as a pejorative, it seems the only way to guarantee religious freedom is an atheistic constitution)?

The assumption that they are aspirations is connected to the desire of 20th century progressivism for equality and for determining that everyone is entitled to the same levels of comfort, which is how it understands the pursuit of happiness. But reading these assumptions into Jefferson, or the rest of the authors of the Declaration, is to superimpose upon them values they would not have had. Jefferson did not want the state to regulate someone’s life any more than was essential for the preservation Enlightenment virtue. He would not have seen equality as a goal to achieve but as a basic assumption, much more akin to Cicero and the natural law tradition, than as the progressive notion of equality as the outcome of politics.