On life, liberty, happiness, and love
Updated: Jan 11
Just a few miles outside of Charlottesville, Virginia sits Monticello, the plantation of Thomas Jefferson, the third President of the United States of America, and one of my homeland's Founding Fathers. In the summer of 1972 my family went there as part of what would be the last holiday before my mother's death the following year. It's a beautiful place designed by the great man himself in the neoclassical style which he found so inspiring. Even as a child I didn't think the house was particularly grand and it certainly wasn't in any way ostentatious, but seemed a kind of testament to both order and beauty – two concepts which don't always go together. On a bench in the garden my mother and I read together words penned by Jefferson himself: 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.
I know now, of course, things that I didn't really know then. At the time, sitting there reflecting on life, liberty, and happiness, I didn't necessarily connect that all I saw around me had been built on the backs of slaves who possessed none of those so-called unalienable rights. In 1972 we still spoke about Jefferson as a “benevolent slave owner” and tour guides in 18th Century dress told us how he was so enlightened that he even fell in love and had six children with one of his slaves, Sally Hemings. They were careful, of course, not to mention that Jefferson owned Hemings, perhaps because they felt that the American Story, though strong in the brick and mortar all around us, was nonetheless too fragile to support such a dark reality as that.
But – as we all know – stories can be complicated, and they frequently have the ability to contain so much more than we, as individuals, can fully comprehend. At age six I probably couldn't have known that the story of our Founding Fathers was certainly more inspiring to me – a privileged white boy – than it was to the children of the descendants of those whose labour had constructed the house before me and had tilled the rolling Virginia fields that surrounded me. History is written by the victors, it is said, and – in the United States, anyway (I wouldn't dare to speak about this Scepter'd Isle where I now happily live) – the victors are almost always privileged white boys who grow up to be privileged white men.
Does this mean the great American Story, which has been a shining light of hope for people all over the world for nearly three centuries, is nothing but an illusion, beautiful words placed one on top of another that make a stunning monument but which, in the end, is little more than a wall which would divide and exclude? There are those who would say so. Indeed some things I read in the British press after Wednesday's tragic act of sedition at the very temple of the American Story seemed to almost gloat over the ills which had befallen us. (O, how we love to make ourselves feel better by pointing out the failings of others! It's so much easier than focusing on our own systemic ills.)
I, however, refuse to give up on the Story – “the story's the thing” my Gramps said and I am my grandfather's grandson. Although the words most frequently highlighted in Jefferson's Declaration of Independence are life, liberty, and happiness, for me the telling bit is where these things come from: our Creator. Yes, it's true mankind has messed things up time and time again, but at the heart of it all is a God who, though aware of how wretched and ungrateful we can be, nevertheless chose to enter into the muck of this world with us so that we could indeed hope in the true beginning of life in him instead of the finality of death; we could hope in the freedom of forgiveness and grace instead of the bondage of sin, we could hope in the happiness of charity and concern instead of the misery of selfishness and greed. As this God has not given up on us, I refuse to give up on the Story. There's grace and insight to be found in reflecting on just how far our Creator has gone for us, and, though governments and misguided people can chip away at the Story, can try to rebuild it as a wall that would divide and exclude, we can never go wrong returning to the Story of love which God unfolds in our lives. Beloved, let us love one another: for love is of God we hear in our second lesson at morning prayer this morning and for Christians this is what is at the heart of our Story. This we seek to promote in ways as communal as voting for the right people and ways as individual as caring for one another, of helping out where we can be of use, of looking outward instead of focusing only on ourselves. This is our story, and it can bring us more life, liberty, and happiness than even the great Thomas Jefferson probably could have ever imagined.
God is love; and he that dwelleth in love dwelleth in God, and God in him. This is our story. This is the Story. I think we'll find that, even in the midst of a world which can at times seem loveless, striving to be people who love more (and love better) is the only way that we will achieve life, liberty and happiness. And that is, quite simply, because it is our Creator's desire for us.
Let us never give up on the Story.