Self-Evident Truths

by Brian on October 14, 2006

I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea that some propositions are self-evident recently. And it is hard to think about this without being reminded of the Declaration of Independence. But I realised when going back over it that I didn’t quite know what Jefferson meant at one crucial point. Maybe this is something completely obvious, or maybe there is some historical literature on this that I should know about. But it seemed to me to be an interesting interpretative question.

The relevant text is fairly famous.

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. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.

The wikipedia page has a link to a high resolution image of the Declaration, in case one wants to verify that the rather odd punctuation around the second sentence is correct.

Here is the question: Which truths is Jefferson saying are self-evident?

Clearly at least two. (Of course, if it were one he would have said ‘this’ not ‘these’.) First, that all men are created equal. Second, that they are endowed with certain rights. But are there any more? That I think is a slightly tricky question.

Put another way, is the next claim Jefferson makes (1) or (2)?

(1) To secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.
(2) It is a self-evident truth that to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.

It might seem that if Jefferson had meant to say (2), then he would have continued the sentence, rather than putting a full stop after ‘Happiness’.

On the other hand, if he had meant to say (1), then it isn’t clear why he would have started the sentence with ‘That’. That’s the kind of start that would be appropriate if Jefferson were continuing a list of propositions that are self-evident truths. The third sentence, where we have clearly left the realm of self-evidence (as noted by the fact that Jefferson starts appealing to something else, prudence) does not start this way, and does not look like the continuation of a list. Possibly the long dash before the sentence is also meant to indicate the continuation of a list, but (as may be obvious) I don’t know enough about 18th Century English to know just what that conventionally indicated.

Back on the first hand, (1) is a somewhat plausible claim, while (2) seems pretty implausible. It is a tricky question just what gives governments their legitimacy. Consent of the governed is one plausible answer, but it is hardly self-evident that it is the only correct answer. Similarly, it is hardly self-evident that there is a right to revolution of just the kind mentioned in the next clause, but if we interpret the sentence as a continuation of a list of self-evident truths, then that’s what we have to attribute to Jefferson. (And I’m ignoring the wild implausibility of the descriptive claim that governments are established to secure these rights. It is very odd to think this could be self-evident.)

If I had to guess, I’d take the last reason to be decisive and say that the only truths Jefferson is asserting to be self-evident are the moral equality principle and the inalienable rights principle. But I’d be interested in knowing whether there is a good reason to think he is claiming something stronger, such as (2).

{ 44 comments }

1

Charlie Whitaker 10.14.06 at 12:56 pm

It looks to me as though the sense shifts from ‘self-evident’ to ‘evident’ as the reader moves from the first sentence onto the second (as if ‘self’ had the additional role of giving emphasis or impetus to the assertion ‘we hold’). To describe the institution of government as proceeding directly from axiomatic a priori truth seems strange. However, governments are observed fact, and it seems reasonable to argue that one of their purposes should be to defend rights which are said to have an axiomatic basis.

Maybe Rawls would help with this? At least with showing what it ought to mean …

2

Anderson 10.14.06 at 12:58 pm

Hm. I’ve always taken it to be “self-evident” that Jefferson’s syntax meant the “That” clauses to be self-evident as well.

It is a tricky question just what gives governments their legitimacy. Consent of the governed is one plausible answer, but it is hardly self-evident that it is the only correct answer.

I think it’s self-evident to Jefferson, and there’s another sense of “self-evident” to which he could appeal: axiomatic, not provable. It’s not only a “tricky question,” it’s probably not a demonstrable question.

Now, one could argue that the 4th & 5th “that” clauses do in fact follow from the three undisputed ones (created equal, endowed w/ certain rights, these rights include LL&PH).

But if they clearly follow, then they’re as good as self-evident. “2 + 2 = 4” isn’t self-evident (didn’t Russell & Whitehead take 200 pages to prove it?), but it’s as good as self-evident.

So, this American says Jefferson considered all 5 “that” clauses to be self-evident truths, not up for debate.

3

laafwaada 10.14.06 at 1:00 pm

It may be significant to note that (1) and (2) should actually be:

(1) To secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.
(2) We, the undersigned, hold it as a self-evident truth that to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.

My instinct is that the claim “X is self-evident” and “We hold X to be self-evident” are subtly different in a way that “X is true” and “We assert that X is true” are not.

4

laafwaada 10.14.06 at 1:10 pm

As a follow-up to what I just said, because it now seems unclear; the grammar for using “self-evident” is like the grammar for using “believable” or “to believe.” No one would want to conflate “X is believable to John,” “X is believable to Jane,” or “X is believable to me” with “X is believable [to people in general].” Both “self-evident” and “believable” are adjectives and so they seem to be about the object they modify, but actually they are providing information about the person or people who finds the modified object believable/ self-evident.

5

Stentor 10.14.06 at 1:12 pm

Consent of the governed is one plausible answer, but it is hardly self-evident that it is the only correct answer. Similarly, it is hardly self-evident that there is a right to revolution of just the kind mentioned in the next clause

The idea that that God created us equal and gives us rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness seems equally non-self-evident. (After all, if that was truly self-evident, then atheists wouldn’t have a leg to stand on.) I would say that Jefferson means to include all the “that” clauses as self-evident. But I’d also say that the “self-evident” construction is a rhetorical device, not a careful philosophical proposition. He’s saying “this is what we believe, and it’s not open to debate.”

6

Anderson 10.14.06 at 1:16 pm

But I’d also say that the “self-evident” construction is a rhetorical device, not a careful philosophical proposition. He’s saying “this is what we believe, and it’s not open to debate.”

What I meant to say, but better expressed. N.b. the “We hold”; no one writes a treatise beginning “we hold that A excludes not-A.” It has, as Stentor properly notes, a rhetorical, hier stehe ich quality.

7

Brian 10.14.06 at 1:19 pm

Of course, there are three things that Jefferson unambiguously says are self-evident, not the two I mention. That was a silly mistake of mine. (I was for some reason treating everything from ‘they are endowed’ to ‘Happiness’ as a single self-evident claim, but there’s no reason to do that.)

I suppose I think that if the fourth and fifth clauses follow from the first three, then there’s an important sense in which they aren’t self-evident. (Just like there is an important sense in which 2+2=4 isn’t self-evident if it follows from earlier premises. R&W do prove it on around page 200, of volume 2!)

Actually this connects up to why I’m interested in self-evidence. I’m interested in which philosophical claims people take as basic, and which they take to be supported by reasons they may or may not be able to easily articulate. So for my (idiosyncratic) interests, the difference between taking the 4th and 5th clauses as axiomatic and taking them to follow immediately from the first 3 is pretty important. And I’d like to think Jefferson also takes them to be derived truths, not self-evident truths.

On Charlie’s point, I don’t think we should identify the self-evident with the a priori. I think it’s very unlikely that even the principle of equality, let alone the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of Happiness, are a priori. But I think Jefferson could be right that they are self-evident. (That is, they are basic principles, not things we derive from something more basic.) So I’d like to keep these as separate concepts.

8

Anderson 10.14.06 at 1:33 pm

And I’d like to think Jefferson also takes them to be derived truths, not self-evident truths.

I suspect Jefferson viewed the latter notion loosely enough that the truths could be derived and self-evident.

9

Brian 10.14.06 at 1:35 pm

On Stentor’s point, I know that there’s an issue about just how literally to interpret Jefferson here. Obviously he could have been trying for a better sound-bite. And equally obviously, it is a little hard to interpret his words without implying it is self-evident that there is a Creator.

I don’t have much to say on the point about rhetoric, though perhaps actually working through Jefferson’s notes would tell us something about how seriously he meant it. The point about religion is trickier. I agree it’s not very plausible that it’s self-evident that theism (or even deism) is true. But it is I think slightly more plausible to think that Jefferson thought it was self-evident than to think he thought the fourth and fifth clauses are self-evident.

10

randall 10.14.06 at 1:39 pm

i took the second sentence, with its two `that’ clauses, to be derived from the first sentence. that is, A. given that the equality of men and their god-granted rights are self-evident truths, B. it therefore follows that governments (which are by definition instituted among equal persons) derive their just powers from the people.

and, given the above, it therefore follows that C. if a government exercises unjust powers, then the people have the right to revolt.

now, i agree with you that jefferson did not include all the steps which would compel these implications, especially from A. to B. still, i don’t find it implausible that jefferson or his contemporaries would think that those steps could be filled in, if they were not also interested in rhetorical persuasion.

11

randall 10.14.06 at 1:41 pm

and, since i didn’t make it sufficiently clear in the last comment, i agree with anderson in point #6.

12

Mark Adams 10.14.06 at 1:46 pm

that…That…That.

The phrasing is pretty self-evident to me.

13

jeff 10.14.06 at 1:49 pm

14

Charlie Whitaker 10.14.06 at 1:55 pm

Well, I freely admit to fudging the terms. And I’m not sure that there’s a consensus on the definition of ‘a priori’, so your reading of it may differ from mine. But is ‘axiomatic’ really so much better?

I can imagine a conception of a right to life or a right to equal treatment that shuns reference to experience. I’m following Rawls here:

The idea of the original position is to set up a fair procedure so that any principles agreed to will be just. The aim is to use the notion of pure procedural justice as a basis of theory. Somehow we must nullify the effects of specific contingencies which put men at odds and tempt them to exploit social and natural circumstances to their own advantage. Now in order to do this I assume that the parties are situated behind a veil of ignorance. They do not know how the various alternatives will affect their own particular case and they are obliged to evaluate principles solely on the basis of general considerations.

(A Theory of Justice; John Rawls; 24: The Veil of Ignorance)

15

abb1 10.14.06 at 2:16 pm

Ah, this is where he’s advocating for demonocracy – the best system of government.

16

tzs 10.14.06 at 2:28 pm

Um, people….if you’ve read enough medieval and renaissance jurists dissecting rights and the consent of the governed, etc., you’ll realize a sizeable percentage of the Declaration of Independence is lifted directly from their commentary.

17

Ben 10.14.06 at 2:34 pm

I’d never given it so much thought, but always assumed he was claiming self-evidence down to the right to revolution. I don’t think one needs to worry too much about whether these things really are self-evident – partly because he’s definitely claiming such status for God when it clearly isn’t, but mainly because calling it self-evident just seems to be a rhetorical way of removing the claims from rational discussion.

18

bi 10.14.06 at 3:07 pm

I agree, it’s probably a rhetorical device. The DOI’s main justification for the revolution seems to be the portion that goes

“Such has been the patient Sufferance so these Colonies … To prove this, let the Facts be submitted to a candid World. He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good. He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance …”

Which is already quite long as it stands. Jefferson probably thought it wouldn’t be good to make it even longer by writing out lengthy formal proofs of philosophy.

19

Scott1960 10.14.06 at 3:20 pm

I always took those dashes to be the equivalent of parentheses.

20

Brian 10.14.06 at 3:48 pm

I agree it would have made the DOI a worse piece of writing if it was written out as a formal proof or anything of the sort. But I think this is something of a red herring at this point. After all, if Jefferson just wanted to stay out of tricky questions concerning moral and political epistemology, he could have just scrapped the wording. I.e., he could have started “All men are created equal. They are endowed by their Creator…” and so on. Or he could have started as he did, and left off the ‘that’ at the start of the second sentence of the second paragraph, and made it appear more as if he was saying something that followed from what he’d said before. (Which it sort of already does.)

It is (at least) an interesting rhetorical flourish to take the time to say things the way that he did.

I didn’t see Laafwaada’s comments earlier, so I should say that I agree entirely that there’s a important difference between “It is self-evident” and “I hold it to be self-evident”. But I’m not sure why it would matter here. That is, I’m not sure it’s any larger than the difference (also important!) between “X is true” and “I hold that X is true.” But maybe I’m missing something here.

On Ben’s point, I also agree that one of the effects of the rhetorical flourish is to act as a debate stopper. But this makes it all the more mysterious to me why we’d want to assign that status to the right to revolution. I thought part of the point of the DOI was to convince the world (and Americans) that revolution was proper here. Now in doing that you don’t want to start with a debate over moral egalitarianism. But ruling questions about whether revolution is right out of order at the top seems like a dubious debating strategy.

21

ploeg 10.14.06 at 3:49 pm

The Declaration of Independence was addressed to a German from the House of Hanover and not to a Scot from the House of Stuart. The reason for this is that, 90 years earlier, the Stuarts lost the consent of the people that they governed. Jefferson (and by extension, the Continental Congress and the people of the United States) is taking the same rationale that was used to crown the House of Hanover and using that rationale to overthrow the House of Hanover. The truths may not have been so “self-evident” to a Hohenzollern, but they were perfectly evident to a Hannoverian, or to any followers of Locke or of the other Enlightenment thinkers.

22

laafwaada 10.14.06 at 4:09 pm

Brian — The point I was trying to make is that “We hold these truths to be self-evident” is a statement about the signers of the declaration, so it can be significant as an explanation of or elaboration on the position of the signers without justifying the self-evidence, or arguing that certain facts are self-evident, or ought to be found self-evident. Indeed, it seems somewhat bizarre to me to speak about persuading someone that they ought to find some claim self-evident.

But at any rate, looking at Jefferson’s original, you and Anderson seem to be right about Jefferson’s position. He seems to be saying that only the creation of all men as equal and independent is self-evident simpliciter, and that each following claim derives self-evidently from the first. I am not sure what the brackets mean, though… maybe that is crossed out in the MSS of the first draft?

We hold these truths to be [sacred and undeniable] selfevident, that all men are created equal and independent; that from that equal creation they derive in rights inherent and inalienables, among which are the preservation of life, and liberty and the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these ends, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed; that whenever any form of government shall become 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 it’s powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness. prudence, indeed, will dictate that governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes: and accordingly all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. but when a long train of abuses and usurpations, begun at a distinguished period, and pursuing invariably the same object evinces a design to [subject] reduce them to arbitrary power, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government, and to provide new guards for their future security. —

23

jim 10.14.06 at 4:09 pm

I understand the dashes to be abbreviations for “we hold”.

That is Jefferson makes three assertions in three sentences: one on the origin of rights, one on government being founded on rights, one on what should happen when government becomes destructive of them. He then qualifies the third assertion.

It’s only the first assertion he calls self-evident.

So, yes, your version (1)

24

Anderson 10.14.06 at 4:12 pm

But ruling questions about whether revolution is right out of order at the top seems like a dubious debating strategy.

But the DOI isn’t meant to be half of a debate. If you’re *debating* whether revolution be proper, you’re a bit half-cocked declaring your independence …

Anyone who didn’t concede the self-evidence of the aforesaid truths, wouldn’t be interested in the grievances that Jefferson presents. “Yes, but the King is still your sovereign, and you must adjust yourselves to his will.” That perspective was not going to be swayed by grievances, or for that matter by philosophical deductions as to the nature of gov’t.

The DOI is rhetoric, the Revolutionary War carried on by means of words.

25

sharon 10.14.06 at 4:15 pm

It’s the 18th century, for chrissakes. They weren’t as nitpicking about punctuation as we are.

26

john c. halasz 10.14.06 at 4:23 pm

Well, I think Brian is missing the whole issue of the illocutionary force of the document, whereby it is inherently rhetorical,- (as arguably are all arguments in part),- but most especially are all political discourse, especially when conceived in a classical republican frame. So it’s not simply any matter of an abstract logic of argument. The “we” that “hold these truths to be self-evident” is obviously the signers of the document, the American revolutionaries in the Continental Congress, such that they are not primarily proclaiming a set of universal truths, but rather articulating a specific cause of action. In fact, they’re not just crossing the Rubicon here, but formulating and justifying the “cause” of a war/revolution that had already begun, as much to and for themselves and the constituencies that they ostensibly represent, as to the prospective settlement with the ennemy party. The key move here then is the “prudence” sentence, which presumably marks the transition from the preamble to the bill of particulars inditing the king and his ministers, which is the actual case for revolution/independence. Of course, the claims in the document are argument-stoppers, because the conflict has already moved beyond the stage of mere forensic argument and, whatever role its articulations and argument might play, will be resolve by “extrinsic” means.

27

dearieme 10.14.06 at 4:28 pm

Mr Jefferson was a salesman. Few sales plugs are built to withstand this sort of scrutiny.

28

Stephen Frug 10.14.06 at 4:44 pm

Point of interest: the words “self-evident” were not in Jefferson’s original draft. Jefferson wrote “sacred & undeniable” — very different ideas, really. Ben Franklin, one of the two peole to whom Jefferson showed his draft (the other being John Adams) was the one to suggest “self-evident” instead.

29

jeff 10.14.06 at 5:25 pm

“Self-evident, adj. Evident to one’s self and to nobody else.”

Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary.

30

Dan Kervick 10.14.06 at 5:43 pm

I really don’t think there should be much doubt about which things Jefferson is claiming to be self-evident. Don’t focus excessively on the punctuation – conventions of punctuation in the 18th century were more unsettled than today, and differ wildly from writer to writer – and simply look at the grammatical construction. There are four “that” clauses following “we hold these things to be self-evident”. Each of these clauses, including the third and fourth, must be part of an enumeration of the “these things”. If they weren’t, then they would be unintelligible sentence fragmants – subordinate clauses without a main clause. You thus have to assume that they all are intended to fall within the scope of “we hold these things to be self-evident”, since that’s the only way the text parses.

If Jefferson simply wanted to make two additional assertions about the insitution of government and the right of revolution, but exclude them from the claim of self-evidence, he could have easily done so by dropping the two “that”s.

Of course it is hard to believe that any of the four claims listed are truly self-evident in the strongest sense – that their truth can be seen non-inferentially or axiomatically, by anyone who understands them, as first principles of reason.

My guess is that Jefferson, writing in the natural law tradition, believes in something like synderesis, the natural capacity to grasp and know the fundamental principles of human conduct, and that his conception of self-evidence derives from this notion. To say that a principle is self-evident, on this interpretation, would not mean that it’s truth is evident to anyone who grasps its meaning. Instead it may mean only that it is ultimately knowable by any human being using his natural intellectual powers and reasoning rightly. That would separate these principles from other truths that are only known to those who have had certain experiences, or received certain revelations or authoritative testimony, or acquired certain specialized skills through education. Since knowing the principles does not depend on these external contingencies, by which some human beings differ from others, there is some sense in which they supply their own evidence.

Aristotle draws a distinction between the truths that are best known “to us” and those that are best known “in themselves”. The distinction seems a bit obscure – isn’t all knowledge a relation between a knowing mind and something else? – but the idea is that the philosopher comes to know the first principles of any science only after a long process that starts with experience, and works toward the first priciples by something like a combination of knowledge and induction. But even though the path to knowledge begins with experience, and requires much ratiocination to reach its goal, once the principles are fully grasped and understood, their truth finally becomes evident “through themselves”. Perhaps Jefferson’s usage is a descendant of this earlier one.

Of course, the Declaration is a highly polemical and controversial manifesto, written with a pressing political purpose in the heat of a gathering emergency. Jefferson may have simply wanted to claim a sort of obviousness for his principles, and be overreaching for rhetorical effect.

31

Dan Kervick 10.14.06 at 5:53 pm

Just one correction of my comment above: there are actually five “that” clauses, not four.

32

Phil 10.14.06 at 6:14 pm

According to Newton scholar Bernard Cohen, Jefferson idolized Newton and was likely using “self-evident” in the same sense that Newton uses the term for his axioms: evident “to those right-thinking individuals who understood the new concepts of rational society. This scientific context of the Declaration is made apparent in Jefferson’s further association of human rights with ‘nature and nature’s God.'” (from Cohen’s short 1987 piece, “The Newtonian Revolution.”) Food for thought, perhaps…

33

JR 10.14.06 at 10:22 pm

It’s true that you have to be careful in drawing conclusions from 18th century punctuation. Having said that, the key here is the dash and the following capital letter. They are not what we think of as dashes. They are lines at the level of the bottom of the letters, not the mid-point. They indicated a new paragraph. The Declaration is written without paragraphs, which was the way formal documents were transcribed, and the dashes indicate paragraph breaks. So look at the dashes to separate the truths. Here is what Jefferson is saying.

We hold these truths to be self-evident:

(1) 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. —

(2) That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, —

(3) 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.

34

MartinJames 10.15.06 at 1:43 am

Even if all of the points are intended to be self-evident those after the pursuit of happiness are derivative in the sense that they are means to the ends enumerated earlier.

Furthermore when the text says “these ends” isn’t it referring to Brian’s short list and not all of the “that” statements.

35

maidhc 10.15.06 at 2:52 am

Jefferson wrote very nicely about governments “deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed”, but when he was President he had no compunction about annexing Louisiana without the slightest regard for the consent of the inhabitants. I believe he even sent in troops to stop the protests.

36

bad Jim 10.15.06 at 3:16 am

It was, after all, a declaration of independence. Washington already had an army in the field. “It is the right of the people to alter or abolish it” was the entire point, and everything leading up to it, no matter how good, was window-dressing.

37

abb1 10.15.06 at 3:31 am

#35 – yes, two self-evident ideas collided there: ‘the right of the people’ and ‘the need to have access to the Mississippi river – or commerce would suffer’. The Creator is clear on which one has a higher priority, in fact that’s self-evident.

38

Gracchi 10.15.06 at 11:47 am

I think what Jefferson was doing was attempting to contrast things revealed to men by light of nature and things revealed to them by a special revelation or by learning. Its a commonplace of early modern philosophy that there are some things revealed to one by light of nature, ie by the fact of being alive and of sound mind. There are others which are revealed to one by the fact one is an Englishman- say the justifiability of Common Law and others by one’s proffession say the detail fo the law and others by one’s education the particular theological niceties of one’s faith. What I think Jefferson is doing here is attempting like many other philosophers of the 17th Century attempted to base the American Commonwealth on the first broadest category that of the light of nature- which chimes in with the refusal of the constitution later to endorse a aparticular religion. As to your question I think therefore the whole clause would be included the first statements are the selfevident building blocks from which any man would start his commonwealth by light of nature- and the point about government is self evident from them by a deduction again that any man would make.

I don’t know how complete this is by the standerds of philosophy today but don’t think it is- but then again it wasn’t written for Rawls to read but Washington.

39

Raven 10.16.06 at 4:31 am

As prior comments noted, “self-evident” was not Jefferson’s original term, but added later (replacing “sacred & undeniable”). There might be some misplaced effort in trying to read Jefferson’s intent from the text as modified by Congress, since the latter’s priority was neither philosophical clarity nor catering to Jefferson’s own preferences (viz. the removal of the slavery complaint).

That said, Jefferson and others adhered to the Social Contract theory, within which a government is indeed formed by the joint consent of the people who will be governed by it, rather than (as in the historical case of the Norman Conquest) imposed by a victorious military conqueror upon those he defeated.

I’d point you to Robert Anton Wilson’s famed true/false questionnaire (in The Fringes of Reason), which illustrates that sometimes we use “true” to mean physically true, or historically true, and sometimes to mean consistent with the rules of a particular game such as Baseball or Jeffersonian Democracy.

It is self-evident that the ball has not been successfully thrown if it hits the ground before passing the man with the bat. Unless you’re playing Cricket.

40

ajay 10.16.06 at 4:50 am

“The Declaration of Independence was addressed to a German from the House of Hanover and not to a Scot from the House of Stuart. The reason for this is that, 90 years earlier, the Stuarts lost the consent of the people that they governed.”

Interestingly, part of the reason the House of Stuart (or Steward, as they were originally) were there in the first place is that, three hundred-odd years before that, in 1320, supporters of Robert I had written this:

…divine providence, his right of succession according to our laws and customs which we shall maintain to the death, and the due consent and assent of us all have made [Robert] our Prince and King. To him, as to the man by whom salvation has been wrought unto our people, we are bound both by law and by his merits that our freedom may be still maintained, and by him, come what may, we mean to stand.

Yet if he should give up what he has begun, and agree to make us or our kingdom subject to the King of England or the English, we should exert ourselves at once to drive him out as our enemy and a subverter of his own rights and ours, and make some other man who was well able to defend us our King; for, as long as but a hundred of us remain alive, never will we on any conditions be brought under English rule. It is in truth not for glory, nor riches, nor honours that we are fighting, but for freedom — for that alone, which no honest man gives up but with life itself.

(emphasis added)

41

nick s 10.16.06 at 7:50 am

The truths may not have been so “self-evident” to a Hohenzollern, but they were perfectly evident to a Hannoverian, or to any followers of Locke or of the other Enlightenment thinkers.

Quite so. In context, ‘self-evident’ is a carefully-worded assertion — ‘we hold these truths’ hovers between the domains of belief and knowledge — but it was an assertion in Locke’s model of the commonwealth, too. And as much as Locke is often read as a cool theoretician, the Two Treatises were political rhetoric in their time — or even before their time, since it’s now believed that they circulated as Exclusion tracts.

I agree that there’s a ‘Newtonian’ strain, indebted to writers such as Bolingbroke. But my reading certainly carries ‘self-evident’ through to ‘the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it…’

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Western Dave 10.16.06 at 1:02 pm

The target audience was Parliament in the UK and the undecideds at home. By hewing to the Glorious Revolution script, Jefferson co-opts the opposition. As for the ambiguity, it is intentional. As one author pointed out earlier, in the grievance part of the document (the less famous but more important part of the proof that shows how the contract was broken) Jefferson had the crown simultaneously introducing slavery to the colonies and freeing slaves. It was a two-fer not only he could pull off. And this is a guy who gets his own lecture in a lot of US surveys. It is invariably titled “The contradictions of Thomas Jefferson.”

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Jean Lepley 10.16.06 at 9:10 pm

On the matter of historical innovation, isn’t Jefferson’s “pursuit of happiness” his substitute for “property” in the more historically conventional triad of “life, liberty and . . .” ?

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john c. halasz 10.16.06 at 10:33 pm

Good pick-up, Jean!

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