“We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable…” The opening sentence in the Declaration of Independence originally began that way. That is how it was electrically stated in Jefferson’s original draft. Those two adjectives were scratched out and the crisp and familiar “self-evident” was put in their place.
The question of who was responsible for the change has been the focus of much scholarly attention. Although not all scholars agree, the consensus of historians gives the credit to Benjamin Franklin. Interesting scholarly debate aside, if we take a moment to consider Jefferson’s original version, there is more to learn here than simply who made the change.
It’s easy to understand what attracted Jefferson to “sacred and undeniable.” Going with these words gives us this: “We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights…” [emphasis added] “Undeniable” holds hands with “unalienable” and “sacred” holds hands with “Creator.”
This version of the sentence sends the mind off in an interestingly different direction. Take, for example, “sacred.” Have you ever noticed that people who interpret the American idea of the separation of church and state to mean that all Christian symbols must be removed from public property still often say that all people are “created” equal? Thanks to the Declaration, that is how we tend to talk about faith in America.
The foes of religion in the American public square, however, ignore the fact that “created” is quickly followed by “Creator” in the Declaration—and that, in fact, “created” implies a “Creator.” As George MacDonald reminds us, the relation between the Creator and the created is “the nearest, strongest, dearest relation possible.” With “sacred” in the sentence, the “created”-“Creator” link becomes quite difficult to ignore.
It’s worth remembering that the Founders really did talk that way. Here’s Alexander Hamilton, in a statement that may be familiar to you: “The sacred rights of mankind are…written, as with a sunbeam, in the whole volume of human nature, by the hand of Divinity itself, and can never be erased or obscured by mortal power.” There is that “sacred” word again, linked to our Creator—referred to this time as the Divinity.
The Declaration’s original wording would have been a stumbling block for today’s foes of religion in America. It would have made it much more difficult for them to get away with claiming they are upholding the Founders’ vision. Likely, it would have forced their hand, driving them to come out in overt opposition to the Founders and the Declaration.
However, if we perhaps lost something with the abandonment of “sacred” we likely gained something with giving up “undeniable.” The principal problem with “undeniable” is that many people in the Founders’ day, in fact, did deny that mankind has unalienable rights. All the deniers would have to do to refute the claim is simply disagree; nothing more would be required.
“Self-evident” brought an important advantage. A self-evident truth is a truth that does not require proof—it is known to be true when it is understood. Flippantly rejecting something it is not the same as refuting it with proof. If it is a self-evident truth, denial can simply mean a failure or unwillingness to understand it.
It is, of course, important to note that even objective truths may not be “evident” to every citizen walking down the street. Some self-evident truths require little more than common sense. Some other self-evident truths require a process of reasoning and discovery.
The Founders understood that many barriers existed to people realizing that the truths they were declaring were not only true but self-evidently true. In fact, the political structure of the whole world at that time was arrayed against that understanding. In a world of crowned heads and hereditary aristocracies, being overheard uttering that all people are created equal could be fatal.
According to the Founders, understanding the self-evidence of these truths required a “candid mind.” A candid mind is an open mind, someone whose understanding is not in the grip of an overriding personal interest against understanding, as you would typically find in those in positions at the top of society such as monarchs or aristocrats.
Additionally, the Founders stressed the importance of what they would call “ripe judgment.” Not everyone could break out of thinking like a royal subject. Others could do it but needed the kind of help that could be found in the Declaration, “The Federalist Papers,” or in Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense.”
The important point for the Founders was that unalienable rights are fundamentally different from the kind of rights conferred by the British Bill of Rights or as understood by British Common Law tradition. After the Glorious Revolution of 1688 ended the Stuart dynasty, rights were granted to the British people by a royal sovereign as a condition of him becoming their new king. The British awarded the throne to William of Orange—who was from the Netherlands—with Mary as his co-monarch on the condition that William agreed to include a Bill of Rights as part of the deal.
The American Founders had a very different conception of rights. Unalienable rights are not granted by the ruler to his subjects but are natural, essential, and inherent to everyone. The Founders’ concept of the source of our rights was revolutionary then and is still a wonderful thing to contemplate today.
Our debt to the Founders for the gift of liberty is beyond measure. Perhaps, in this time when many Americans and the leadership of the Democrats are demonstrating very clearly that they reject the Founders’ idea of America, we might consider trying to deepen our understanding of the Founders’ thinking. Who knows? Perhaps we will be given an opportunity to make a difference, in which case it will be good to be ready.