“We hold these truths to be self-evident…”
This phrase is seared into the soul of America like no other. On this July Fourth weekend, it seems fitting to reflect on the meaning of these words and the truths canonized by them. Along the way, I’ll also be exploring the meaning of patriotism in today’s America, and consider whether different truths are being held as self-evident in our land today.
I’m going to start with two words: We hold.
Why did Jefferson write in the first person? Would it not have been bolder and more direct to write, “These truths are self-evident”? Two meanings can be seen in this choice of words that fit both the writer and his historical context. First, We hold has a tacit significance: Other people may hold other truths to be self-evident – or none at all. But the truths that follow, and no others, are the foundation on which the rest of the document is constructed. “Disagree with us if you will“, Jefferson seems to be saying, “but understand that on these points, at least, you can not convince us otherwise.“
The second meaning follows from this. Before we explore it, though, let me pause to briefly describe the intellectual well from which the Founders had drawn much of their inspiration.
Jefferson, Franklin, and other Founders were disciples of the Enlightenment. This eighteenth century European movement set out to challenge the assumption that a central authority – be it church or state, or both – could be the source of all truth. The philosophers of the Enlightenment (including among others Rousseau, Montaigne, Hume, and Locke) believed that the way to truth was through reason, explicitly rejecting the notion of truth being revealed from God.. Reason, however, must start with a small set of axiomatic truths: With no pre-accepted, or “self-evident”, truths, there are no building blocks with which to build still larger truths. Yet the number of axioms must be small, so that reason can reach as many truths as possible without resort to “just because” explanations.
And therein lies the second meaning of “We hold”: Unlike contemporary Western kings and princes, the founders were not beholden to a favorable interpretation of divine law for their moral authority; they needed no “Divine Right” as claimed by royalty. Their truths came not from the Bible or any external authority. In choosing their own self-evident truths, the Founders had taken a step that was quite radical for the eighteenth century. It was, in fact, a second Declaration of Independence, embedded within the first but no less bold: declaring independence from any authority, sectarian or secular, that might claim power over their own consciences.
By comparison to the opening, the remainder of the revolutionary phrase now might almost seem pedestrian: “…these truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal…” Yet the phrase has lost none of its power or glory through this analysis. Indeed, we now see more clearly the nature of the gift that has been handed down to us: The United States of America is the first nation founded not on raw power, not on religious coercion, but on reason. If we can keep it.
Another influence of the Enlightenment on the Founders also deserves attention here. The men gathered in that hall in Philadelphia two hundred and twenty-nine years ago were no group of like-minded souls. The stakes for them could not have been higher. Opinions were strongly held, and agreement often seemed impossible. Yet there was a belief among them that this opposition could be turned into a neutral, perhaps even positive force. Rules were followed that encouraged a free and open debate, and respected the right of all members to express their opinion. This pursuit of truth through the exchange of ideas was another hallmark of the Enlightenment philosophers (who in turn were drawing from the ancient Greeks.) Years later, Thomas Jefferson would write:
Difference of opinion leads to enquiry, and enquiry to truth; and that, I am sure, is the ultimate and sincere object of us both. –Thomas Jefferson to P. H. Wendover, 1815. ME 14:283
The events of that time and place could hardly have more relevance today, when America is beset by two related fundamentalist movements: one of religion, one of politics; both claiming to represent ideologies on which our nation was founded. The former, of course, is the movement of right-wing Christians who wish to make the United States a Christian nation. The latter comprises those on the political right who would claim the mantle of patriotism to themselves exclusively, going so far as to accuse liberals of being “traitors”.
It is a strange kind of patriotism that, in proclaiming itself, violates the ideas on which our country is founded. For by rending a great divide between the two sides, the right turns away from the idea of inquiry, the possibility of learning from one’s opponent, and the goal of forming a more perfect union. The Founders were wise enough to know that none of them had all the necessary answers. In charging “treason”, today’s right wing seems to suggest that not only is the rightness of their positions certain, but that their opponents know that they are right, and yet refuse to accede to their obvious truths. The arrogance of this position is stunning; the contrast to the wisdom of the Founders is stark.
The question of secular vs. sectarian origins for our country has been much debated, with the vast preponderance of evidence coming down on the secular side. To anyone claiming the sectarian side, I respond with one of the few passages in the founding documents that make any allusion to a deity at all:
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 — That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed, that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these Ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its Foundation on such Principles, and organizing its Powers in such Form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
Yes, these rights are said to be endowed by a Creator. Yet the reader is not forced to assume that the Creator played an active role in this endowment. Now look again: “We hold these truths…”. These truths, and their self-evidence, transcend by far the Creator’s role in this particular story.
Who holds these truths? Not God, nor his priests. We, the People of the United States of America, hold them, now and forever.