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What follows is a conversation that took place in June 1776. In times when America was fighting a war for independence from an oppressive and tyrannical government, few wise men were paving the path to their newly found freedom. Three free men were drafting a document that aimed to bring an end of an old way of governance and the birth of a new way of self-governance. The trinity of men consisted of Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and John Adams.

Thomas Jefferson: Gentlemen, I have drafted my writings on our document of Independence. I ask for your undivided attention and sincere advice on the words that I have hitherto written.

…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.

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…

Thomas Jefferson: The last words that I have written give anxiety to my spirit. They have given me many sleepless nights, and that is why I have come here before you, as protectors of our country and friends to our people. Gentlemen, I wish to know which of these Rights is most important. Is it Life, is it Liberty, or perhaps Happiness? Certainly, they are all necessary, but if hard times envelop the lands in which we live, our people must know which of these is the most essential principle for conducting our lives.

I have currently ordered these Rights in the order of my current perceived importance. Therefore, I consider Life to be the principle Right of our men. Without the Right to Life, there could be no Liberty or Happiness. A dead man could not be free or happy, but only dead. Our earth belongs to the living, and not to the dead¹. Thus, I wish to learn your verdict on this matter. Life, Liberty, or Happiness Mr. Franklin?

Benjamin Franklin: In principle, I agree with your ordering Mr. Jefferson. But in practice, I will have to disagree with it. When we send our men into war; when we ask them to lay down their lives for their country; when we ask them to sacrifice their lives for the happiness of their children, aren’t we implying that Liberty is higher than Life?

When we send people into war, we ask them to free us from the tyranny of our oppressors at the cost of their life. In this respect, I claim that Liberty is more important than Life itself.

Thomas Jefferson: And what about you Mr. Adams?

John Adams: In principle, I also agree with you and Mr. Franklin. But I think both of you are focused on the wrong words. Mr. Jefferson, you have written Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness. I would argue that Life, Liberty, and Happiness are less important than the word pursuit. What a man pursues, he shall receive. Nothing is given to a man, but that which he pursues at the cost of everything else. For that reason, I believe that the pursuit of Happiness is the most important principle in one’s life.

Men are granted life as the greatest gift from their Creator. And people may choose to do as they wish with their gifts. People may choose to become slaves to a king or a martyr to their faith. They may choose to live in the prisons of their creation for their whole life.

But what I choose, what I dream about at the time of day, is the pursuit of my own Happiness. Without the pursuit of my happiness, I wish for no freedom nor life for they would be a hollow gift to my existence. If I can’t pursue my own happiness, I wish for no Life nor Liberty, Mr. Jefferson.

Thomas Jefferson: Very well! Thank you both for your thoughts on this matter but we have arrived no further than when we started. How shall I decide the primary Rights of men if we can’t arrive at a conclusive order of our human Rights?

Benjamin Franklin: Mr. Jefferson, we should not get ahead of ourselves. The role of government is not to make all the decisions for our people for if we make all the decisions for them we deprive them of their freedom. We must govern by the consent of the governed. The fewer rules we impose on our people, the greater their freedom to rule themselves. Thus, the best form of government becomes no government at all for it gives people the ultimate freedom.

At the current times of our young republic, we shall not set rules written in stone, but rather we shall urge for establishing basic guidelines for our laws. It is not our duty to impose ordered laws on our citizens since only the people themselves can impose order to their own lives.

The government has no power but the power that takes from its people. When the government takes power from the people, it makes its people powerless. When people become powerless, the government becomes powerful. A powerful government always ends in tyranny and despotism and its people always end in oppression and impoverishment.

In my youth I traveled much, and I observed in different countries, that the more public provisions were made for the poor, the less they provided for themselves, and of course, became poorer. And, on the contrary, the less was done for them, the more they did for themselves, and became richer. In short, you offered a premium for the encouragement of idleness, and you should not now wonder that it has had its effect in the increase of poverty.²

We shall make fewer provision and ordering of their Rights, not more. Therefore, I suggest not to provide an ordering of the Rights of men more than in the form they are currently written.

John Adams: I agree with Mr. Franklin. And hereby I ask of you both, who is the original source of the Rights of men if not the great Creator of all? God created men and women so that they themselves can establish the right Rights for living. Their Rights are antecedent to any form of earthly government. We can neither repeal nor restrain these Rights since they have been derived from the great Legislator of the universe.³

Before giving Liberty or Happiness to our people, we must give them knowledge and wisdom so that they can choose rightly the Right principles for Life. Liberty cannot be preserved without a general knowledge among the people, who have a right, from the frame of their nature, to knowledge, as their great Creator, who does nothing in vain, has given them understandings, and a desire to know; but besides this, they have a right, an indisputable, unalienable, indefeasible, divine right to that most dreaded and envied kind of knowledge, I mean, of the characters and conduct of their rulers.⁴

Let us see delineated before us the true map of man. Let us hear the dignity of his nature, and the noble rank he holds among the works of God, that consenting to slavery is a sacrilegious breach of trust, as offensive in the sight of God as it is derogatory from our own honor or interest or happiness, and that God Almighty has promulgated from heaven, liberty, peace, and good-will to man!⁵ Not one man, not a few men, but all man.

The only foundation of a free Constitution is pure Virtue, and if this cannot be inspired into our People in a greater Measure than they have it now, They may change their Rulers and the forms of Government, but they will not obtain a lasting Liberty. They will only exchange Tyrants and Tyrannies.⁶ But a Constitution of Government once changed from Freedom, can never be restored. Liberty, once lost, is lost forever.⁷ Happiness once surrendered, is surrendered forever.

Thomas Jefferson: I sincerely value both of your positions regarding the Rights of men. At times I disagree with your premises, but beyond time, I wholeheartedly agree with the essence of your arguments. Through our disagreements, we must find the real essence that binds us. There must exist a common bond that binds all of humanity.

If we do not learn to sacrifice small differences of opinion, we can never act together. Every man cannot have his way in all things. If his own opinion prevails at some times, he should acquiesce on seeing that of others preponderate at others. Without this mutual disposition we are disjointed individuals, but not a society.⁸

The greatest good we can do for our country is to heal it’s party divisions and make them one people. I do not speak of their leaders who are incurable, but of the honest and well-intentioned body of the people.⁹

Thereby, I will stand on my initial position of the wording of the Rights of Men. It shall be written on our Declaration of Independence that Life, Liberty, and pursuit of Happiness are the principle Rights of man. And men themselves shall decide on the right order of their God-given Rights.

Benjamin Franklin: Agreed Mr. Jeferson. Let people themselves decide on the right order. Let them pursue that which they will value most. People who value Life will get Life but with less Liberty and Happiness. People who value the latter might get Liberty and Happiness but no Life.

People always choose to live in freedom to the extent they can handle the threat of too much freedom in their lives. Some birds prefer to live their whole lives in cages, and if men wish, they too shall choose such destiny.

But let it be known that those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.¹⁰ Let people themselves choose what they want, and at the end of their lives, they undoubtedly will collect that which they chose and deserved.

We are all in this together Mr. Jeferson. We must, indeed, all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.¹¹

John Adams: Let it also be known Mr.Jefferson that the jaws of power are always open to devour, and her arm is always stretched out, if possible, to destroy the freedom of thinking, speaking, and writing.¹² Our future generations must be able to think for themselves, they must speak their mind and write out their souls.

Let the bar proclaim, “the laws, the rights, the generous plan of power” delivered down from remote antiquity, inform the world of the mighty struggles and numberless sacrifices made by our ancestors in defense of freedom.¹³ From our writings, we must cry out to our posterity and tell them: Posterity! you will never know how much it cost the present generation to preserve your freedom! I hope you will make a good use of it. If you do not, I shall repent in Heaven that I ever took half the pains to preserve it.¹⁴

Thomas Jefferson: Mr. Franklin and Mr. Adams I thank you for your kind and thoughtful words. Lets now proceed with the rest of the declaration of our Independence…

…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.


Original Quotes

[1] The earth belongs to the living, not to the dead. — Thomas Jefferson

[2] In my youth I travelled much, and I observed in different countries, that the more public provisions were made for the poor, the less they provided for themselves, and of course became poorer. And, on the contrary, the less was done for them, the more they did for themselves, and became richer. In short, you offered a premium for the encouragement of idleness, and you should not now wonder that it has had its effect in the increase of poverty. — Benjamin Franklin

[3] I say RIGHTS, for such they have, undoubtedly, antecedent to all earthly government, — Rights, that cannot be repealed or restrained by human laws — Rights, derived from the great Legislator of the universe. — John Adams

[4] Liberty cannot be preserved without a general knowledge among the people, who have a right, from the frame of their nature, to knowledge, as their great Creator, who does nothing in vain, has given them understandings, and a desire to know; but besides this, they have a right, an indisputable, unalienable, indefeasible, divine right to that most dreaded and envied kind of knowledge, I mean, of the characters and conduct of their rulers. — John Adams

[5] Let us see delineated before us the true map of man. Let us hear the dignity of his nature, and the noble rank he holds among the works of God, that consenting to slavery is a sacrilegious breach of trust, as offensive in the sight of God as it is derogatory from our own honor or interest or happiness, and that God Almighty has promulgated from heaven, liberty, peace, and good-will to man! — John Adams

[6]The only foundation of a free Constitution is pure Virtue, and if this cannot be inspired into our People in a greater Measure than they have it now, They may change their Rulers and the forms of Government, but they will not obtain a lasting Liberty. They will only exchange Tyrants and Tyrannies. — John Adams

[7] But a Constitution of Government once changed from Freedom, can never be restored. Liberty, once lost, is lost forever. — John Adams

[8] If we do not learn to sacrifice small differences of opinion, we can never act together. Every man cannot have his way in all things. If his own opinion prevails at some times, he should acquiesce on seeing that of others preponderate at others. Without this mutual disposition we are disjointed individuals, but not a society. — Thomas Jefferson

[9] The greatest good we can do our country is to heal it’s party divisions & make them one people. I do not speak of their leaders who are incurable, but of the honest and well-intentioned body of the people. — Thomas Jefferson

[10] Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety. — Benjamin Franklin

[11] We must, indeed, all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately. — Benjamin Franklin

[12] The jaws of power are always open to devour, and her arm is always stretched out, if possible, to destroy the freedom of thinking, speaking, and writing.- John Adams

[13] Let the bar proclaim, “the laws, the rights, the generous plan of power” delivered down from remote antiquity, inform the world of the mighty struggles and numberless sacrifices made by our ancestors in defense of freedom.- John Adams

[14] Posterity! you will never know how much it cost the present generation to preserve your freedom! I hope you will make a good use of it. If you do not, I shall repent in Heaven that I ever took half the pains to preserve it. — John Adams

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