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.