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.
On an individual level, natural law holds that there is a Third Party, beyond the biological mother and father, involved in the act of human creation. Your two parents generated your material substance, the goop and soup of you; that much could be said of any mammal. But according to natural law, God expresses His interest in every human being through the act of ensoulment — the creation of an individual soul — by virtue of which the human being becomes a person. And from that quality of personhood flow the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
The genesis of this concept of personhood is, well, Genesis. Specifically, Genesis 1:26-27: “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.” If the biblical passage makes sense, given the peculiarities to which human flesh is subject, the image of God in man must be the soul.
But in what sense is this idea “self-evident”? If you think about it, the proposition that all men are created equal is by no means “self-evident” — at least not in the common sense of the phrase. Neither is the idea that they are endowed by their Creator with inalienable rights, nor that those rights include life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Why then did Jefferson, Franklin, and Adams prefer “self-evident” to “sacred and undeniable”? Maybe because the latter starts an argument, but the former finishes one. If you say “we hold these truth to be sacred and undeniable,” you’re laying the emphasis on the word “we”: We believe these things. On the other hand, if you say “we hold these truths to be self-evident,” you’re shifting the emphasis to the reader’s response, telling him, in effect, that if he doesn’t concur, he’s suffering from a cognitive deficiency. Recall, too, that the Declaration was written at the height of the Enlightenment — when congruence with human reason had begun to eclipse congruence with scripture as the ultimate gauge of truth. What is self-evident must be self-evident to all reasonable people. Those who fail to grasp what is self-evident, therefore, are being unreasonable.
The proposition that all men are created equal and endowed with inalienable rights has become, quite simply, the magnetic north of the modern world’s moral compass. Which is not to say that our interpretation of it has remained fixed. The direct line between Genesis 1:26-27 and Jefferson’s “all men are created equal” compels us to take into account the tail end of the biblical passage: “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.”
Jefferson wrote “all men.” But we now read the phrase to include women, and members of all ethnicities — that is, “all people.” The full personhood of human beings Jefferson himself might not have had in mind is apparent to us.
Taken in their totality, Jefferson’s self-evident truths are not actually self-evident truths, but represent a creed. They are unprovable and nondisprovable. You make the leap of faith, or you don’t. All in, or all out.
If you’re an American, you’re all in. For what is the United States Constitution, and the centuries of jurisprudence derived from it, except the laws designed to ensure the natural rights mentioned in the Declaration?
The foundation of the United States is the article of faith that all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with natural rights. It is our gospel to the world, the Necessary Religion of America, the creedal core to which all Americans — Jews, Christians, and Muslims; polytheists, monotheists, and atheists — say “Amen” each Fourth of July.
— Mark Goldblatt teaches religious history at Fashion Institute of Technology of the State University of New York.