Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Who wrote: "We hold these truths to be self evident"?

Every American schoolchild learns that it was Thomas Jefferson who penned the mighty words "We hold these truths to be self-evident ...." But recently there has been more than a little confusion on this point.

In part the confusion is an honest and long-standing uncertainty due to the fact that in addition to Jefferson, both John Adams and Benjamin Franklin helped to forge the final version of the Declaration of Independence that was ratified by the Continental Congress on July 4, 1776. And in addition to Jeferson, Adams and Franklin there were also two lesser known members of drafting committee: Roger Sherman, and Robert R. Livingston.

But Walter Isaacson has greatly exacerbated this honest uncertainty by stupidly declaring, in his biography of Benjamin Franklin, the following:
Franklin made only a few changes, some of which can be viewed written in his own hand on what Jefferson referred to as the "rough draft" of the Declaration. (This remarkable document is at the Library of Congress and on its Web site.) The most important of his edits was small but resounding. He crossed out, using the heavy backslashed that he often employed, the last three words of Jefferson's phrase 'We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable' and changed them to the words now enshrined in history: 'We hold these truths to be self-evident.'"
[pp. 311-312]
The only people who agree with Isaacson on this issue are those who rely exclusively on Isaacson as their only source on the question. Everyone who has done independent research on the matter is either meticulously equivocal, or tends toward the accepted attribution of the words to Jefferson.
"Possibly it was Franklin, or Jefferson himself, who made the small but inspired change in the second paragraph. Where, in the initial draft certain 'truths' were described as 'sacred and undeniable,' a simpler, stronger 'self-evident' was substituted."
[David McCullough, John Adams, p. 122. Look here for a much longer excerpt of the relevant passage in McCullough.]

"The phrase 'sacred & undeniable' was changed to 'self-evident' before Adams made his copy. This change has been attributed to Franklin, but the opinion rests on no conclusive evidence, and there seems to be even stronger evidence that the change was made by TJ or at least that it is in his handwriting."
[Boyd, Declaration of Independence, 1945, p. 22-3." (link)]

Pauline Maier, in her "American Scripture: The Making of Declaration of Independence" simply says "the phrase is perhaps Franklin's". [p. 136]

Carl Lotus Becker, in his 1922 classic The Declaration of Independence: A Study on the History of Political Ideas, states that in his opinion the phrase "self-evident" was already in place before Benjamin Franklin had seen the working draft:
"Jefferson first wrote 'we hold these truths to be sacred & undeniable.' In the Rough Draft as it now reads, the words 'sacred & undeniable' are crossed out, and 'self-evident' is written in above the line. Was this correction made by Jefferson in process of composition? Or by the Committee of Five? Or by Congress? There is nothing in the Rough Draft itself to tell us. As it happens, John Adams made a copy of the Declaration which still exists. Comparing this copy with the corrected Rough Draft, we find that it incorporates only a very few of the corrections: one of the two corrections which Adams himself wrote into the Rough Draft; one, or possibly two, of the five corrections which Franklin wrote in; and eight verbal changes apparently in Jefferson’s hand. This indicates that Adams must have made his copy from the Rough Draft when it was first submitted to him; and we may assume that the eight verbal changes, if in Jefferson’s hand, which we find incorporated in Adams’ copy, were there when Jefferson first submitted the Draft to Adams — that is, they were corrections which Jefferson made in process of composing the Rough Draft in the first instance. With Adams’ copy in hand it is therefore possible to reconstruct the Rough Draft as it probably read when first submitted to Franklin."
[Chapter Four: Drafting the Declaration: link]

This is a case where there is room for some small amount of reasonable doubt. But there is in fact very little evidence against the traditional and accepted attribution of the phrase "We hold these truths to be self-evident" to Thomas Jefferson.

Happy Fourth of July!!

[This is an old post, but I thought it was appropriate for the 4th of July. It was originally posted on August 25, 2010, under the title "Gay Rights, Gun Rights, Birthrights, Inalienable Rights & Other Self Evident Truths".]

What we most often think of as "Constitutional rights" are actually found in the Amendments to the Constitution. There are twenty seven such Amendments, and the first ten are traditionally known as the Bill of Rights.

Many of the other seventeen Amendments (after the Bill of Rights) are not concerned with basic, fundamental "rights." But five of them are: the 13th, 14th & 15th Amendments (abolishing slavery and related issues); the 19th Amendment (women's suffrage); and the 24th Amendment (abolishing "poll taxes").

The 13th Amendment abolishes slavery. It was actually proposed in Congress on January 31, 1865, just under a month before the surrender of General Lee. It became law on December 6 of that year, eight months after the assassination of President Lincoln.

The 14th Amendment (adopted July 9, 1868) has four major components:
The citizenship clause grants citizenship to everyone born in the United States (except for Native Americans!).
The due process clause protects individual rights against arbitrary government actions.
The equal protection clause guarantees all US citizens equality before the law.
The incorporation clause prohibits individual states from violating rights protected under the Constitution (yes, this was necessary!).

The 15th Amendment guarantees the right to vote for all citizens.

Taken together, the 13th through 15th Amendments were necessary to extend full citizenship to former slaves. Even with these amendments there still came into being an odious system of second class citizenship, which was only possible because the 13th through 15th amendments were not rigorously enforced.

The whole bullshit argument over "States Rights" arose as an attempt (successful for almost a full century) by racist Southerners to exempt themselves from abiding by the Constitution of the United States! This is precisely the reason for the "incorporation clause" in the 14th Amendment - to ensure that no State can deny its citizens any of the rights guaranteed by the Constitution.

The other two major "rights" oriented Amendments are the 19th, which extended voting rights to women; and the 24th, which prohibits the use of the so-called "poll tax" to deny any citizen the right to vote.

People should study the simplicity and forcefulness of the language in these fifteen Amendments. Then compare this stirring language with the (often) tortuously obtuse, mind-numbing legalese of the rest of the Constitution. In fact, the primary function of much, arguably most, of the Constitution is to carefully define and legally enshrine property rights, whereas these fifteen amendments are where our rights as human beings are addressed.

As everyone knows, the original framers of the Constitution fell far short of fully implementing the ideals espoused in the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights. And the same was sadly true of the implementation of the 13th through 15th Amendments.

Even today, in the 21st century, the power of the 14th Amendment has yet to be fully realized. How can anyone claim that we have equality before the law when same-sex marriage is barred by law? In fact, how can anyone claim that we have true separation of church and state when religiously inspired homophobia is allowed to influence our laws in ways that have a direct and pervasive effect on the lives of citizens?

Some people want to monkey with the 14th Amendment. Some people want to tinker with the 2nd Amendment. Some people don't realize that Sharia Law is incompatible with equality before the law -- the same law for all citizens. Some people don't want equal protection to be applied in the case of same-sex marriage. Some people want to make a fetish out of the idea of the Constitution, to turn it into an empty symbol and a political marketing ploy. Some people think religious freedom is an outmoded idea because we should get rid of religion altogether. Some people think freedom of speech is an outmoded idea because they want to criminalize "hate speech." But mostly people just don't want to bother with trying to understand the issues and ideas that Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, James Madison, and others wrestled with and that we have to still wrestle with today.