The Most Significant Edit to the Declaration of Independence

Self-Evident Truths

Thomas Jefferson writes to Franklin a couple of weeks before the Declaration is going to be ratified and says, “Here’s my draft. Have you got any changes?”

And Franklin reads Jefferson’s draft which says, “We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable,” and he crosses out “sacred and undeniable” and replaces it with “self-evident.” And that’s the edit, and I think it’s a wonderful metaphor or parable for the post-Christian West.

Now, in and of itself, you could say the edit doesn’t make a huge amount of difference. That’s not the claim I’m making. I don’t think that had Jefferson left the words “sacred and undeniable” in that then we would’ve gone down a very different path. That’s not the claim. But I think it serves as a really good parable of the post-Christian West, which is that what we do is we take truths which are actually grounded in Christian thought and Christian anthropology—even the fact that it said “they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights,” in a modern sense, that’s certainly not self-evident to most people today at all.

Remaking the World

Andrew Wilson

In this skillfully researched book, Andrew Wilson explains how 7 historic events in 1776 shaped today’s post-Christian West and equips believers to share God’s truth in the current social landscape.

And it wasn’t self-evident to several of the founders, in many ways, and a lot of them hadn’t believed that these rights they then enumerate were a real thing even ten or fifteen years before they wrote the Declaration.

These things are sacred truths. They are things that are grounded in Christian assumptions about God and about human beings, but by calling them “self-evident,” two things happen. One is that Franklin is wanting to make a broader Enlightenment appeal. It is, to some degree, a universalization of the idea.

Rather than saying these things come from Christian roots, it’s a way of saying these things are, if you understand the terms of the debate, obvious. And there's a lot of literature about what self-evident means, and people go back and forth about exactly how it was meant. But effectively, one of the things that happens is that he universalizes a presumptively Christian claim into a more universal one.

The other thing that happens is that people today and ever since take the word “self-evident” in a slightly less technical meaning and think, This is just obvious to us. We know this.

Christian Moral Convictions

And people now, today, live that way, not just with respect to the Declaration but with respect to Christian moral convictions across the board. So it now seems indisputable to people that human beings have rights and that human beings have a right, in many cases, to vote, which was not seen as self-evident even at the time of the Declaration.

And there are many other rights—you have a right to have this and this and to be treated in these ways—but that does not follow from the materialist and largely evolutionary paradigm that most modern people claim to believe about the origins of human beings. It doesn’t follow that if you evolved from nothing, from goo, through apes, or whatever you believe about evolution, that doesn’t lead to the conclusion that human beings have rights and must be protected and have dignity and that you should make sure you protect children or women or minorities. Those just don’t follow from the evolutionary premise. Those things follow from Christian assumptions about the God-givenness of human dignity and being made in God’s image. But we now treat them as self-evident.

So one of the things that Franklin’s edit does is to universalize a claim. But the other thing it does is it’s just a great metaphor for the way modern people think about Christian moral convictions that actually don’t hold unless you have Christian assumptions about God and the world. But because everyone thinks they’re incredibly obvious, they now think, Well, then we don’t need Christianity. Because we’ve got those things secure, we can keep the fruit without the roots. And that is some of what’s happening in the modern West is people are continuing to insist that of course Christians and all people are entitled to these rights, this kind of dignity, and so on, but they say you don’t need God for that. It’s just obvious.

Actually, it really isn’t. I’d be interested to know if in 500 years’ time, if belief in God in that sense is withered dramatically, do these things still hold? Fascism would be a particularly vivid example in the last 100 years of when you say that, then it often doesn’t. And I think it’d be dangerous to assume it always will.

Andrew Wilson is the author of Remaking the World: How 1776 Created the Post-Christian West.

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