(CNSNews.com) - Making a reference to the Declaration of Independence as he spoke at the White House on Wednesday evening, President Barack Obama expressed gratitude to the members of military families who have sacrificed to defend the "God-given rights" of Americans, including the right to life.
In his remarks, Obama suggested that the Declaration was the first time the God-given rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness had been "put to paper."
"All of you represent what is best in America," Obama said to the group of military families gathered for a barbeque. "You serve under our proud flag. You and your families sacrifice more than most of us can ever know--all in defense of those God-given rights that were first put to paper 236 years ago: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."
The Declaration of Independence, primarily written by Thomas Jefferson, was approved by the Continental Congress on July 4, 1776.
It says in part: "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."
Thomas Jefferson later said that the Declaration was not intended to be a piece of original thinking but rather "an expression of the American mind" inspired by well-known "elemenary books of public right," including the writings of the 4th century B.C. Greek philosopher Aristotle and the 1st century B.C. Roman senator Marcus Tullius Cicero.
"This was the object of the Declaration of Independence," Jefferson wrote in a letter to Henry Lee on May 8, 1825. "Not to find out new principles, or new arguments, never before thought of, not merely to say things which had never been said before; but to place before mankind the common sense of the subject, in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent, and to justify ourselves in the independent stand we are compelled to take.
"Neither aiming at originality of principle or sentiment, nor yet copied from any particular and previous writing, it was intended to be an expression of the American mind, and to give to that expression the proper tone and spirit called for by the occasion," Jefferson told Lee. "All its authority rests then on the harmonizing sentiments of the day, whether expressed in conversation, in letters, printed essays, or in the elementary books of public right, as Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney, &c."
Aristotle, who died in 322 B.C., discussed the nature of happiness in his Nicomachean Ethics. Cicero, who died in 43 B.C., insisted in his Treatise on the Commonwealth that there is only one law and that God is its author.
"There is a true law, a right reason, conformable to nature, universal, unchangeable, eternal, whose commands urge us to duty, and whose prohibitions restrain us from evil," wrote Cicero.
"Whether it enjoins or forbids, the good respect its injunctions, and the wicked treat them with indifference," he said. "This law cannot be contradicted by any other law, and is not liable either to derogation or abrogation. Neither the senate nor the people can give us any dispensation for not obeying this universal law of justice. It needs no other expositor and interpreter than our own conscience. It is not one thing at Rome and another at Athens; one thing today and another tomorrow; but in all times and nations this universal law must for ever reign, eternal and imperishable. It is the sovereign master and emperor of all beings. God himself is its author, its promulgator, its enforcer. He who obeys it not, flies from himself, and does violence to the very nature of man. For his crime he must endure the severest penalties hereafter, even if he avoid the usual misfortunes of the present life.
"The virtue which obeys this law, nobly aspires to glory, which is virtue’s sure and appropriate reward—a prize she can accept without insolence, or forego without repining," wrote Cicero. "When a man is inspired by virtue such as this, what bribes can you offer him, what treasures, what thrones, what empires? He considers these but mortal goods, and esteems his own, divine. And if the ingratitude of the people, and the envy of his competitors, or the violence of powerful enemies, despoil his virtue of its earthly recompense, he still enjoys a thousand consolations in the approbation of conscience, and sustains himself by contemplating the beauty of moral rectitude."