The most famous sentence ever set to paper by an American was not conceived in a single instant. In his first draft of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson wrote: “We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable; that all men are created equal and independent, that from that equal creation they derive rights inherent and inalienable, among which are the preservation of life, and liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
Benjamin Franklin and John Adams read this draft and suggested minor alterations, which Jefferson incorporated into the version presented to the Second Continental Congress. The sentence became: “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.”
Though no one knows who made which edit, it’s safe to assume that all three men gave that sentence a good going over — in all likelihood agonized over its final form. Each change is therefore worth noting. But I’m going to focus here on just two: 1) “sacred and undeniable” became “self-evident,” and 2) “endowed by their Creator” was added.
The second change is perhaps the more intriguing, so let’s begin there. We can rule out the idea that the mention of a “Creator” was meant as a straightforward signal of piety. Franklin and Jefferson were deists — that is, they believed in a higher power that governed the universe, but not a personal deity; indeed, Jefferson once literally cut up a New Testament, excising all the supernatural elements, in order to pare down the text to its moral core. Their Christianity, if it can be called such, was of the most attenuated kind. Adams was a more traditional believer, but his Unitarianism was among the least emotive of Christian denominations. So their collective decision to invoke a capital-C “Creator” as the source of men’s equality must be taken as pragmatic, not devotional. But what does invoking the Creator accomplish?
Remember that Jefferson had originally written that “all men are created equal and independent,” and “that from that equal creation they derive rights inherent and inalienable.” The problem is that these words are manifestly false. Even if we grant that men are created independent — itself a dubious assertion — they are certainly not created equal in any quantifiable way. Not physically. Not intellectually. Not even if we mean their hidden potentials. No matter how much I practice, I’ll never be as good a basketball player as Michael Jordan is. No matter how long I study, I’ll never be as good a physicist as Albert Einstein was. Hence men’s equality, if it exists, must consist of an immeasurable quality, an intangible essence, a soul.
This is the signature recognition, the sine qua non, of natural-law theory — the moral system through which Jefferson sought to make his case for American independence. On a collective level, the theory holds that the written-down laws of any government, including those of the King of England, must conform with, in Jefferson’s words, the “Laws of Nature” – which, while unwritten, flow from “Nature’s God” and are thus binding on all people and governments.