Text and Subtext

Today we celebrate not the 234th anniversary of the birth of this nation, of our declaration of independence—that was two days ago on July the 2nd, the date that the Continental Congress unanimously passed Mr. Richard  Henry Lee’s resolution of independence, the day on which the United Colonies of America became the United States of America. No, we celebrate the 234th anniversary of the publication of the formal text stating the reasons for that independence. We celebrate not the act but the explanation, not Independence but the Declaration. Today we celebrate the power of words, of ideas, of reasons and reason. The great acts were on April 19th, 1775, which is commemorated as Patriots Day only in the Massachusetts, our offspring state Maine, and for the past decade, the state of Wisconsin, and July 2nd, 1776, which is not to my knowledge celebrated, despite John Adams’ prediction.

The precise words of the Declaration and their history has been in the news lately as modern technology has shown what has been long suspected, that while writing the rough draft, Jefferson obliterated the word “subjects” and replaced it with “citizens”. This change along with several others shows how new the ideas in the declaration were, how even the authors of the document, among the most eloquent speakers and writers of their day struggled to overcome the linguistic conventions of the ideas and mindset that they were overthrowing.

Elsewhere in the draft we find a reference to George the Third that reads:

The History of
the
his
^

present

king of Great Britain
majesty
^

Jefferson was obviously having trouble shaking off the styles of monarchy, of thinking of, or at least referring to the King as “his Majesty” and the people as his subjects. His original phrasings presume that authority flows down from God to King to subject to slave, but the very words of the document declare that “governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed”, who in turn are “endowed by their Creator with inherent & inalienable rights” in the words of the draft. Jefferson and the Founders were in the process of standing the social order on its head. No longer did authority come from the divine right of Kings, but from the natural rights of the people, the governed. This was a whole new theory of rights, authority, government and law.

This mistake of thinking in terms of authority deriving from the inherent power of those who govern is still made today, in the pages of our newspapers, the seat of our government and the maunderings of our pundits. It was not long ago that the Attorney General of the United States made the deplorable assertion in sworn testimony before Congress that “there is no expressed grant of habeas in the Constitution” as if the Constitution grants rights to the people rather than ceding the power of the People to the government. How often do we hear the President referred to as “Commander in Chief of the American People” as if he has the right to command, rather than being the servant and tool of the people? How often do we hear that foreigners, immigrants or terrorists should not receive the “rights the Constitution grants citizens”? According to the theory that Jefferson was struggling to fit his words to, these questions and claims are nonsense. Nature or Nature’s God endows us with rights. The Constitution protects them, and grants limited power to the government that it creates, that it “constitutes”.

That theory is basically the same as that found in Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense”, written a few months earlier, and derives in large part from the writings of John Locke, who crystallized the Enlightenment thinking that was evolving in the coffeehouses and the Freemason lodges and private clubs of England, Europe and the colonies. Here’s what Locke wrote in the second chapter of “On Civil Government”:

§ 6. But though this be a state of liberty, yet it is not a state of licence: though man in that state have an uncontrolable liberty to dispose of his person or possessions, yet he has not liberty to destroy himself, or so much as any creature in his possession, but where some nobler use than its bare preservation calls for it. The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it, which obliges every one: and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind, who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions: for men being all the workmanship of one omnipotent and infinitely wise Maker; all the servants of one sovereign master, sent into the world by his order, and about his business; they are his property, whose workmanship they are, made to last during his, not another’s pleasure: and being furnished with like faculties, sharing all in one community of nature, there cannot be supposed any such subordination among us, that may authorize us to destroy another, as if we were made for one another’s uses, as the inferior ranks of creatures are for ours. Every one, as he is bound to preserve himself, and not to quit his station wilfully, so by the like reason, when his own preservation comes not in competition, ought he, as much as he can, to preserve the rest of mankind, and may not, unless it be to do justice to an offender, take away or impair the life, or what tends to the preservation of life, the liberty, health, limb, or goods of another.

Locke had two basic formulations that he used most often to describe the natural rights of man: “Life, Liberty and Property” and “Life, Health, Liberty and Possessions”. Jefferson uses a slightly different formula. In the draft he initially writes of “the preservation of life, & liberty, & the pursuit of happiness”, but he, or one of the others, shortens that to the pithier “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”. The difference is worth noting. According to the natural rights reasoning, life and the ability to enjoy it are fundamental rights, rights that we can deduce from the very act of Creation. The rights to liberty, health and property are essential rights because they provide the necessities for life and its enjoyment. All of these are inherent and inalienable, whether they are primary or secondary. And so, Jefferson replaces health and property with “the pursuit of happiness” and in doing so presages the Utilitarian philosophy of Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. (This makes Bentham’s mocking “Short Review of the Declaration” a little ironic.)

Interestingly, Jefferson didn’t see the inspirational second paragraph of the Declaration as being all that important. For him, the key purpose of the Declaration was to air and enumerate the grievances that forced the colonies to declare their independence. His first paragraph basically says that declaring independence is a drastic step and we owe to the world to explain why we take it. The last paragraph actual declares independence. The bulk of the document lists the causes, the grievances. The second paragraph is there simply to lay the groundwork for the list of grievances, to set forth the philosophical assumptions and reasoning. It is merely the background. And therein lies its tremendous value. It is a one paragraph summary of the revolutionary philosophical underpinnings of the birth of a nation, the first nation conceived in and dedicated to a philosophy, rather than being an expression of raw power.

The Macintosh comes with a service for summarizing any document or text. If you set it to summarize by paragraphs, feed it the Declaration, and restrict it to one paragraph, it chooses the last, but if you set it to two, it chooses—rightly—the second and last. The first is preface, the bulk just a list of complaints. The second is the philosophical grounding and the last is the concrete action.

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.   But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.  –Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government.   The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States.   To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.

:

We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do.   And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.

There is another whole section that was being reworked in the rough draft, but which was eliminated in toto from the final version of the Declaration, namely the reference to slavery, which read,

he has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating it’s most sacred rights of life & liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. this piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the CHRISTIAN king of Great Britain. determined to keep open a market where MEN should be bought & sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce: and that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them, by murdering the people upon whom he also obtruded them; thus paying off former crimes committed against the liberties of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another.

And while this section was removed, and slavery continued on for another four score and seven years, the words of that inspiring second paragraph, that all men are created equal, as the great modern orator Byron Rushing has pointed out became the property of others, of posterity and the law, and when combined with the legal reasoning at the heart of Anglo-American Common Law, ultimately resulted in the abolition of slavery, as we could no longer deny that “All men are created equal and endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights” means just that—ALL people.

And so on this Independence Day, it is worthwhile to reread the Declaration of Independence, in all its drafts, to reflect on the text that is there and the subtext that is revealed as we study the context, the other writers, the other documents and the history of the times. 

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2 Responses to Text and Subtext

  1. Sallijane says:

    Thank you for a wonderful post! I always think back to the ideals of the founding documents on this holiday, and restore my patriotism, based on the Declaration and Constitution, which generally flags during the year as I see what has become of our ideals over the last 200+ years. I am also a proponent of Patriots’ Day, though it is not observed in New Jersey. I led the service at my Unitarian Universalist church yesterday; my topic was “Where Patriotism, Atheism, and Religion Converge”, and while researching quotations on Wikiquote I was interested in a lot of what John Adams had to say, especially his fear of two dominant parties in direct opposition to each other—what he would say if he could see us today!

  2. Craig Nazor says:

    Great post!

    This has been said before, but I always remind myself of these things as I go through the emotions I always go through on the 4th of July, which is my favorite holiday.

    First of all, those guys back there in 1776 were a very impressive bunch of people.

    What I have always loved most about America is the ideals that the founding fathers were formulating on which our country is based. We have not yet achieved these ideals in reality, and perhaps we never will, but striving to achieve them is the only thing that will keep America great.

    It is interesting that many of the writings, poems, and songs that we use to celibrate this day show full knowledge of the fact that America is in the middle of a process, and doing the right thing is not assured:

    “Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,”

    from the Star-Spangled Banner, and:

    “America! America!
    God mend thine ev’ry flaw,
    Confirm thy soul in self-control,
    Thy liberty in law.”

    and:

    “America! America!
    May God thy gold refine
    Till all success be nobleness,
    And ev’ry gain divine.”

    both from America, the Beautiful.

    The process is not over. We have not yet lived up to our full potential. As our wealth, power, and technology have grown, so have our responsibilities. We are in a time of new and serious challenges, and success is only assured if we are willing to join together and work hard and not lose sight of the essence of those original ideals, interpreted afresh for our changing circumstances.

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