“We hold these truths to be self evident,” penned Thomas Jefferson, writing the document that would birth a new nation. Those truths: that all men are created equal and with certain rights, among them life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
There is a curious debate whether the sentence should have ended there, because there is no discernible period (full stop) in the original document. The sentence was possibly intended to continue qualifying man’s inalienable rights and “that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…”
Before Jefferson presented the document to committee, he had John Adams and Ben Franklin give it a line edit. One of them is responsible for the term “self-evident,” as Jefferson’s original line read, “We hold these truths to be sacred & undeniable;”
So what is “self-evidence”? Philosophers are divided on the concept, as they are on most concepts. (The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy could use more content on the subject, but this entry on Psychologism notes major points of departure.)
Colloquially, a self-evident truth is one that does not require evidence to back it up. Most reasoning minds can “feel” that it is true, or so the thinking goes. One example: the belief that one is conscious is a self-evident truth, because the belief is realized through consciousness itself. It is not self-evident that other beings are conscious.
Is it self-evidently true that all people are created equal? On the contrary. If “created” means “conditions one is born into,” it is obviously, manifestly false. If it means something mystical that a deity endows upon human persons, then it is a brand of equality without very much Earthly application.
About that deity… Jefferson originally wrote that “all Men are created equal & independent; that from that equal creation they derive rights inherent & inalienable among which are the preservation of life, & liberty, & the pursuit of happiness;” Somebody (I’m going to guess Adams) stuck in the line about being “endowed by their creator” with these rights.
Deeper into the Declaration, Jefferson supposedly wanted to include a line that blamed King George III for the African slave trade, describing it as “a cruel war against human nature.” A funny accusation, coming from a slaveholder, but do read the paragraph excised from the rough draft to appreciate both the depths of Jefferson’s hypocrisy and the cynicism with which it was applied: he was only bringing up slaves because the British had just promised them their freedom if they sided with the Redcoats:
He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating it’s most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. This piratical warfare, the opprobium of INFIDEL Powers, is the warfare of the CHRISTIAN king of Great Britain. Determined to keep open a market where MEN should be bought & sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce. And that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them, by murdering the people on whom he also obtruded them: thus paying off former crimes committed against the LIBERTIES of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the LIVES of another.
In any case the Continental Congress, comprised of northern and southern slave-holding delegates, edited this graph down to one more ambiguous grievance against George III: “He has excited domestic Insurrections among us.”
Slavery is sometimes called America’s Original Sin, but even before the Colonists were pinning their economies to chattel slavery, they had cleared the path for their settlements with an Aboriginal Sin. Lumped in with the “domestic insurrections” cited above, Jefferson and friends alleged that the British had “endeavored to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian savages, whose known rule of warfare, is undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.”
Believe it or not, Jefferson became even less egalitarian as he grew older. In the early 1790s, when he was Washington’s Secretary of State, Jefferson advised an acquaintance to invest “every farthing” in “land and negroes, which besides a present support bring a silent profit of from 5. to 10. percent in this country by the increase in their value.” In 1792, he shared with Washington his shrewd calculation that showed how breeding black children could realize four percent annual profit.
Jefferson’s position on Native Americans soured over time as well, a change that almost certainly correlates with the expansion of Colonists’ domain and corresponding squeezing out of American Indians. In 1813 he wrote:
This unfortunate race, whom we had been taking so much pains to save and to civilize, have by their unexpected desertion and ferocious barbarities justified extermination and now await our decision on their fate.
And we all know what that fate was to be.
If we accept self-evident propositions without examination, we run the risk of deluding ourselves into accepting lies without evidence. Even if all men are created equal, we now know–after looking at the evidence–that the men who made that claim did not believe it was true themselves.
Happy Birthday America!