Self-evident, sacred and undeniable: Declaring independence

Let me know if this sounds familiar.

We hold these truths to be sacred & undeniable; that all men are created equal & independant, that from that equal creation they derive right inherent & inalienable, among which are the preservation of life, & liberty, & the pursuit of happiness…

Vaguely familiar, but not quite right, you say? You are correct. This is more likely what you’d recognize:

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.

The second quote you’ll recognize from the U.S. Declaration of Independence. The first comes from Thomas Jefferson’s rough draft of the same document.

I want to look at two major changes: (a) from “sacred and undeniable” to “self-evident,” and (b) from “the preservation of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” to simply “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.’

That Franklin dropped the Oxford comma as well is probably of no consequence, but it does reaffirm his status as someone I look up to.

In instances like this, I always think it’s interesting to start with what the words mean, and we’ll check out the first change, well, first.

Sacred. “Dedicated or set apart for the service or worship of a deity,” says Merriam-Webster. Though perhaps the more appropriate definition for Jefferson’s use is “worthy of religious veneration” or “entitled to reverence and respect.”

The word derives from Latin or Old French, “to make holy,” and dates back to the late 14th century.

Undeniable. “Plainly true,” “incontestable,” “unquestionably excellent or genuine,” says M-W.

Self-evident. This was a newer word in the world of the Founding Fathers. It’s attributed to John Locke’s “Essay Concerning Human Understanding,” published in the 1680s.

It means evident without proof or reasoning; since I don’t like using part of the word in the definition, let’s also look at evident, defined as “clear to the vision or understanding.”

“Evident” is older than Locke’s “self-evident” by some 300 years, deriving from the Latin for “perceptible, clear, obvious, apparent.”

Locke, by the way, was one of Jefferson’s favorite thinkers.

To Jefferson, that all men are created equal with certain unalienable rights is “sacred and undeniable.” That is, “entitled to reverence and respect, and unquestionably excellent.”

To Franklin, it’s just obvious.

Jefferson, who was in his early 30s at the time, felt the need to put a value judgment on it. Franklin, some four decades Jefferson’s elder, was kind of past the bullshit and just wanted to see the U.S. out from under a king.

In his excellent biography of Benjamin Franklin, Walter Isaacson notes that Franklin’s use of “self-evident” came less from Locke than from the idea of scientific determinism — the same cause-and-effect argument we tried to reckon with free will.

It should be noted that Isaacson’s reading puts the religious tilt on sacred I chose to work around.

The idea of “self-evident” truths was one that drew less on John Locke, who was Jefferson’s favored philosopher, than on the scientific determinism espoused by Isaac Newton and on the analytic empiricism of Franklin’s close friend David Hume. In what became known as “Hume’s fork,” the great Scottish philosopher, along with Leibniz and others, had developed a theory that distinguished between synthetic truths that describe matters of fact (such as “London is bigger than Philadelphia”) and analytic truths that are self-evident by virtue of reason and definition (“The angles of a triangle equal 180 degrees”; “All bachelors are unmarried”). By using the word “sacred,” Jefferson had asserted, intentionally or not, that the principle in question—the equality of men and their endowment by their creator with inalienable rights—was an assertion of religion. Franklin’s edit turned it instead into an assertion of rationality.”

The Washington Post takes a more flippant view of Franklin’s edit:

[Jefferson] showed the draft to John Adams and Benjamin Franklin, who suggested “self-evident” instead — perhaps a polite way of saying to the British crown: “as any fool can plainly see.”

I’d love to think it was something like Isaacson’s idea, a step away from language that felt like faith — early settlers did leave England, after all, for religious freedom — and more into science, which was a particular hobby of Franklin’s.

But Franklin might also have been America’s first troll. He would write an opinion piece in his own newspaper, send a letter refuting it under a pseudonym to another paper, then print another pseudonymous letter in his own paper supporting the view. He’d also print columns in his own paper under pseudonyms refuting columns in rival papers.

Part of me wants to give Franklin the benefit of the doubt on taking the high road. Given the opportunity, I would certainly name Franklin to my personal board of directors.

But I think it’s equally as likely, as the Post posits, that he was flipping the bird to the monarchy.

On second thought, that wouldn’t make me think less of him.

The other change in that opening sentence is also interesting to me.

Among the rights that all men had, wrote Jefferson, was the preservation of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Franklin dropped the preservation, writing that men had the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

“Preserve” derives from “keep safe;” “preservation,” on the other hand, comes from “protection from disease. That’s an interesting distinction — that “preservation” specifically has an element of disease in its history.

The dictionary tells us that preservation is “the activity or process of keeping something valued alive, intact, or free from damage or decay” — that last bit sounds like disease, as well.

This, I think, is a good elimination on Franklin’s part. If life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness were in danger of decay from some disease in Jefferson’s version, in Franklin’s, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are inalienable rights to be reclaimed, not healed.

Remember, as we come up on Independence Day here in the U.S., we were born of an anti-establishment aesthetic. Jefferson was a young upstart assigned the task of writing a “fuck you, we’re out” letter to the king. Franklin, the elder statesman, used his more practiced craft to stick the knife a little deeper.

Keep those attitudes. We need them for those times when complacency rolls into our lives.


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