Tuesday, March 3, 2009

What does it mean? Part 1.

I recently re-watched HBO's wonderful "John Adams" miniseries based upon the book of the same name by David McCullough. One pivotal scene; John Adams, Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson are gathered together in a room, presumably in Philadelphia going over Mr. Jefferson's draft of the soon to be Declaration of Independence. They are shown to be quibbling over some of the phrasing that Mr. Jefferson chose. Now whether or not this scene is accurately conveyed or historical at all is not really what I'm interested in.

What I am interested in, is the very first line of the "Declaration of Independence" as we know it today, that is the first line after the familiar preamble:

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal..."

We have all been conditioned to, almost without thinking, ascribe our ascent to this cherished piece of American scripture. But, is it entirely worthy of such reverence?

What does this statement mean?

What did it mean to Jefferson? What did it mean to Adams or Franklin? Or to any of the other men who affixed their signatures to this document before sending it off to King George?

Perhaps most importantly what does it mean to US today more than 200 years later and is it necessary that what we think it means mirror what the founders think it meant?

The first part of the statement is so loaded its almost absurd; "We hold these truths to be self evident...", seems to me to be a qualifier of some sort, meant to convey unambiguity to what follows should be readily seen to be obvious. But obvious to whom, and on what basis? Seems very circular to me. There seems to be non-stated premise that there is some gold standard that we should all be working from that we all have to agree on. What is that standard and by what authority can we conceivably agree to it? Many of the founders were men greatly inspired by the works of John Locke, David Hume, Charles Montesquieu, and St. Paul. If you read the works authored by these men, you would come away with some very different ideas for that standard. That discussion that could take years! In the interest of sanity let's move on...

The second part of the statement is very problematic to me: "that all men are created equal...". When you look at this statement in a vacuum without any context it does seem a logical truism. However, if you look at the world we live in putting aside man-made injustices and just focusing on the all too apparent differences in what skills and capabilities individuals possess this statement seems hilarious to the point of absurdity. Even the founders had to be cognizant of the plain fact that some do have the distinction of achieving greatness with meager means while others even with best of advantages barely rise to mediocrity. Clearly we are not equal in that regard; so whatever were the founders agreeing to here?

These are the thoughts I have when I am stuck in 'solar-glare' traffic on Route 2 eastbound in early March.

The meaning I ascribe to these words is that we should be equals in the eyes of the government we would choose to create. Equal regardless as to the privileges or liabilities of our respective births. Equal regardless of out mental capacities. Equal regardless of skin color, creed or philosophy.

Is this what Mr. Jefferson was thinking? I wish I could ask him, but I'm about 187 years late.




Nate said...

First off, it's good to see that someone realizes that the bruden of communication rests on the reader, of ancient (or in this case, centuries old) documents, not the author, since language and culture are far from static.

Second, I really haven't formulated an opinion yet at to the meaning of the phrase...I have to look at the fuller context of the Declaration.

My gut tells me that modern interpretation, is different. The word "created" has always stuck out to me. It almost sounds like we all leave the womb in equality (although I doubt all the signers passionately accepted this idea) but equality in adulthood is not guaranteed based off the choices we make.

Certainly the authors will telling Mother Britain that she is not a superior.

Robert said...

It almost sounds like we all leave the womb in equality

See I don't think that's true. If it were there wouldn't be genetic defects like Downe's Syndrome, Autism or any number of physical defects that render a baby otherwise less able to compete with it's more nominal peers.

I agree with you that this was language used to tell Mother Britain off as it were. That land & title did not solely make a man AND that the law of the land must be blind to the differences in those subject to those laws.


Anonymous said...

Pomo alert.

Anonymous said...

Can I cut and paste? =)

Robert said...


Robert said...

ah post-modernism....



Ed said...

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal..."

I'll will let the constitutional scholars, which I clearly am not, debate the body of over 230 years of court decisions related to these words.

For me they mean that every American citizen should be treated equaly under the law, without regard to race, gender or sexual orietation.

I can think of two issues currently being debated regarding those words.

1. Abortion. Does an unborn child have equal protection the same as every other citizen? I would yes, which is why I oppose abortion. A more complicated question is at what stage in it's development does a zygote/embryo/fetus become a "child", a citizen?

My answer is that this isn't until the cells of the embryo begin to differential themselves and a brain starts to develop. I don't believe a zygote qualifies as a citizen, so I think it can be used, and destroyed, in stem cell research.

2. Are laws that state that a marriage, recognized by the state, or federal government, can only be between a man and a women?

I think consenting adults should have the right to have their marriage, to anyone of any gender, recognized by the state.

I don't know if my positions are correct under the US Constitution from a legal standpoint, but I hope they are.

Anonymous said...


Neural tube formation begins in the blastula stage, about 72 hours. So that's a problem for your line.

But a bigger problem is, why pick there? I don't see any reasoning.


Anonymous said...


"Consenting Adults"

For instance, brother and sister.

Or 3 women and one man.

Or 3 men and one woman.

Or 3 men and 3 women.

But why stop at adults?

Why not consenting anyone?

Robert said...

It's funny i was having this exact discussion with my wife last night.

Sherri is virulently pro-gay marriage. I played devils advocate and asked the very thing that you alluded to Jason.

If the state recognizes non-hetero unions... what's to stop someone from insisting upon state recognition of a 'triune'. Or what if a man and 4 consenting women wanted to engage in some kind of polygamist union? If we are willing to allow same-sex unions on what basis could the state prohibit polygamist unions?

For my wife's part she said she didn't care because to her mind it's not her or states business.

I'm not so sure.

I'm beginning to see that these matters aren't nearly as clear as we would like them to be.


Ed said...

Robert, the only words important to me are "consenting" and "adult".

I don't have a philosophical problem with a group of people deciding on some kind of commune marriage arrangement, or a man, or women, who gets legally married to more than one spouse.

Thinking about it one problem I do see is the question of who is responsible for the groups children when one member decides to get a legal divorce. My answer there is that the law should give parental rights to the childs biological parents.

There may also be some legal question about health insurance and social security that might argue against this.

You are right it is a complicated question, but not many legal issues aren't.

Anonymous said...

R wrote

For my wife's part she said she didn't care because to her mind it's not her or states business.

And that may be worth discussing, but that is exactly the opposite of what is happening. The state is making it their business in all areas of existence.

Anonymous said...

Some would say that to look at creationall around us and deny the existance of a creator is denying a self-evident truth. Scripture tells us that we are all born with the knowledge of God.