“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.“
These are the first two sentences of the Declaration of Independence, written by Thomas Jefferson. The overall document is written on one (large) sheet of paper, 1,320 words in length. That is the equivalent of about 5 double-spaced, standard pages. Not bad for a document that is (arguably) the most important single document in human history. The first sentence is a nice statement of purpose. “We are going to cut our ties to you and become a separate country. This document will explain why.” The second sentence is a position statement. “These are the things we believe in and that make us who we are”. The rest of the document is, more or less, a list of all of the ways that England had prevented the colonists from living according to those beliefs.
On the Fourth of July, I found myself watching the musical, “1776”. It is a musical, made back in the 1970’s, about the Continental Congress and the constructing of the Declaration of Independence. It’s kind of a weird concept, although I suppose it seems much less weird in light of the gargantuan success of “Hamilton”. Anyway, I was watching the movie and got to thinking. I was suddenly struck by the genius of the entire idea of a written declaration. It certainly wasn’t required. I expect that, most of the time, the process would have been to send a letter or an envoy to whomever one wanted to break up with and basically tell them it was over. Or just kill or kick out everybody on the wrong side as more of a physical demonstration of intent. The Congressional delegates, however, wanted to make sure that everyone, including other governments, know precisely why they were taking the action they were taking and why they felt justified to do so.
That’s all well and good, but where’s the genius, you may ask? For one thing, a written declaration could be printed and sent all over the country for people to see, so that everyone could understand what the Congress was trying to do and why. Back in those days, there were only two ways to distribute information—orally or in print. Making speeches isn’t a particularly effective way to reach a wide audience, so print was pretty much the only option. The printed documents could only be distributed by boat or horseback, so it was still pretty slow, but eventually, you could get the message out to everyone who could read or be read to. Coming up with ideas is one thing. Getting those ideas out before the people who need to see them is a challenge. It was a challenge then, and it still is, despite all the tools we have at our disposal now.
In addition to being a mechanism to distribute the contents of the document to as many people as possible, writing things down in a formal document is just a better way to record facts, encapsulate meaning and enumerate points. When you write something down, you have all sorts of opportunities to edit and tweak it before anyone else sees it. You can massage it until it says just exactly what you want it to say, just exactly the way you want to say it. If it is well=written, nothing (much) gets left out. Nothing much is left to misinterpretation. In the case of the Declaration of Independence, posting a copy of it in your store window or on your front door or printing it in your newspaper let everyone know exactly where you stood and what you believed in.
Another really good reason to compose a written declaration is that the participants sign it, which demonstrates their support for the contents and ideals in the document and their commitment to advancing the purposes of the document. It’s sort of like the anti-Facebook. The main reason people write such awful things on Facebook is that it is impersonal and removed. Most people would never say, face-to-face, ninety percent of what they post on their Facebook pages. By signing their names to the Declaration of Independence, the delegates, acting as representatives of their states, affirmed the support of the people for what the document said. As individuals, they pledged to one another “their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor”, because the Declaration was, technically, treason against the British Crown and if they had lost the war, all 56 signers would have been hanged. It’s one thing to say that you like and support something. It’s quite another thing to sign your name to it, for all to see.
What’s all this got to do with us? Well, I’ll tell you. I would like to propose that we draft a declaration of our own, here in Hopkins County. Not that we need to secede from Kentucky, or anything. I think we should draft a document that declares to all the world what we believe, what we aspire to and what we are, as a unified group of citizens, willing to do to make it happen. Oddly enough, I just happen to have a draft of such a document. It’s certainly not a final draft, but it’s a place to start. It took Jefferson 17 days of dedicated effort to write the original, followed by two days of brutal editing in the Congress to come up with a document all the delegates would agree to sign. Jefferson was considerably more skilled than I, so I expect it will take me longer to get it right. Anyway, here’s what I have:
The Hopkins County We Will Make
We, the people of Hopkins County, Kentucky, hereby recognize the following truths and declare the following principles that will guide our thoughts and actions as we seek to build a bright, prosperous, and healthy future for all our people, where every child has a real and equitable opportunity to reach their full potential to become healthy, fit, educated, cared-for, productive, and engaged citizens.
We will strive to create a new culture of health and prosperity where we recognize and affirm the following:
- The value of each life to us all and each person recognizes that they are part of our community and that they matter.
- The overwhelmingly destructive power of poverty
- That it is, in the words of Frederick Douglass, far easier to build strong children than it is to repair broken men.
- That each life that does not reach its potential impacts everyone else’s well-being and prosperity, whether it is due to poor health, lack of opportunity, violence, substance abuse, injustice, educational failure, poverty, social bias or other barriers.
Given that we recognize these truths and choose to foster and build a community where we will build upon our strengths and no longer tolerate those factors that are preventing us, individually and collectively, from reaching our potential happiness, healthiness and prosperity, we will create a community where:
- Every person will have access to health care, regardless of insurance status, ability to pay, location, health status or other logistical or financial hurdles. Health care includes physical health, mental and behavioral health, oral health and ocular health. No one will suffer illness alone.
- We shall seek to end poverty in Hopkins County and our surrounding region within a generation
- We will seek to make healthy food available, accessible and affordable to all, regardless of where they live. No person in Hopkins County will go to bed hungry
- No one will be without safe shelter. There will always be a place to go. No one sleeps outside.
- Every person and family who suffers from substance abuse issues will have access to treatment, support and transitional care. We will treat those in need with respect, not as criminals or as lost causes. We will help them rebuild their lives, restore their futures and rejoin the mainstream of our communities
- We will, through public and private action and policy, think and plan in collaborative fashion for the long-term, reimagining our physical, cultural, social and economic environment in order to create a community in which our children will want to stay and raise families of their own, where all people of goodwill are welcomed, where business can thrive, where new talent can be recruited, where innovation is the norm and where the lives of all are rich and fulfilling.
- Every child shall be educated in the public schools to the extent of their capacity. Every child in Hopkins County will enter Kindergarten ready to learn and will be reading at grade level by third grade. We will provide every support and assistance possible to allow each person to become trained or educated in the craft or career of their choice so they can join the ranks of an educated, informed, productive, and prosperous citizenry.
- We will ensure our children receive support from pre-natal care, through the birth process and through early childhood development. We recognize that there is no time more important for the future course of their lives than this and that investments made here will pay off many-fold over time.
- We will care for and treasure our old folk. If they are still at home, we will look in on them and make sure they have enough to eat, that their homes are safe and comfortable, that their medical needs are met and that they are still living lives that they value. When they can no longer live at home, we will make sure that we have proper places for them to go to get the care they need and to maintain a quality of life, by their own standards. We will all age, and we all deserve to age as well as possible. We will endeavor to make Hopkins County a place where every person can grow old as well as they can and meet their end with dignity.
Places that offer attractive physical and cultural environments, that offer economic and social opportunity to young people, that provide excellent care and education for the young, provide excellent health care and opportunities to live healthy lives and that take care of their elders are, quite simply, good places to live. This is what we seek to do and we will work together in everything we do to bring such a future to reality.
Imagine the possibilities! Not just in what we could achieve for our people and our futures by believing those things and working toward those goals, but in what effect it could have to people outside the county. If such a document, signed by community leaders, businesses, church leaders, educators, and the citizens of the county, were to be posted on our websites; in our businesses; in our schools, churches and health facilities; in courtrooms and jails; in our town halls and government centers; in assistance centers and anywhere else people go, the effect could be enormous. If I were looking for a place to live or a place to build a business, I would certainly be interested in a place like that. If I was a kid growing up here and knew that was the kind of place we were trying to be, I’d consider staying and being part of it. If I were a charitable foundation looking for places where my investment could make a difference, I’d certainly look at the opportunity.
We could post signs at the county line on every road leading into the county: Welcome to Hopkins County, where we work hard, where no one sleeps outside, no one goes to bed hungry, no one is sick without care and we take care of our old folks.
We can achieve these goals. We can be this place. We can be these people. We already have most of what we need to do it. We just need to imagine new ways of doing things, new ways of working together, and new ways to use our resources more efficiently and collaboratively. We need to plan together and plan for the long-term. We need to come up with a unified vision of who we want to be and then we need to commit ourselves to getting there, together. Every single one of us.