Self-evident Truths: The Discerning Before Declaring Independence
Shane S. Schulthies, PhD
As I reflect over the festivities of this month during which many of us in the United States celebrated the birth of our country with parades, picnics and fireworks, I am reminded of John Adams’ foresight in a letter to his wife Abigail:
I am apt to believe that [Independence Day] will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival. It ought to be commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance by solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more (sic)1.
Adams’ prophetic statement was correct about everything but the date. He was speaking of July second, the day the Continental Congress formally passed the resolution for independence, rather than July fourth, the day Congress approved the careful wording of its public declaration.
Independence Day shifted from the second to the fourth almost by accident. During the 1770s and 1780s it was celebrated infrequently. In 1777 Congress neglected to mark the day until July third, but by then it was too late to celebrate July second. As a result, the first anniversary of our independence was celebrated on the fourth of July, complete with patriot songs played by the Hessian band captured the previous winter2. Apparently the Fourth of July stuck.
Initially it seems that the Declaration of Independence itself fared little better than the celebrations. Most viewed the document as a mere formality necessary to announce independence. For example, John Adams called it “dress and ornament rather than body, soul or substance.”3 John Wilkes, an American supporter in England described it as “the most awkward and uncouth dress of language.”4 Additionally, almost all attention was focused solely on the last paragraph, the words that actually declared independence. The principles in the first two paragraphs were largely overlooked. However, by the mid 1790s the Democratic Republicans, led by Jefferson, began to see the Declaration as much more—a statement of their rights and a barrier to the expansion of government power promoted by the Federalists. Eventually, the Federalists also began to also view it as a powerful document that described the rights of all men. By the 1820s the Declaration was recognized by almost all Americans as the expression of the fundamental principles of our county. This sentiment was expressed by Jefferson, who called it “the best guide of the distinctive principles . . . of the United States,” and “the fundamental act of union of these States.”5 The heart of these principles is found in the first two sentences of the second paragraph, which reads:
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 were instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.
I hope we are familiar with these principles. Equality before the law, natural rights, and popular consent form a foundation of our liberties. But underneath these principles lies a footing upon which this foundation rests. First, that there is a standard of right and source of truth superior to any man or group of men—be he king or be they parliament. Second, that one might know these principles with a certainty sufficient to take up arms in their defense.
Jefferson’s original wording, “We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable6,” suggests a divine source of these truths, which he directly stated elsewhere in the document. Likewise “undeniable” underscores the surety with which one could know them. The change to “We hold these truths to be self-evident” removed the religious language, but kept the surety. For self-evident does not simply mean obvious, as a one might assume. Rather, it describes a truth that is inherent in the principle itself, without external proof. Such principles are true, not because of empirical evidence or logical disquisition, but because our intellectual and moral sensibility say they are true. Or to look at it inversely, such principles are true because our intellectual and moral sensibility cannot comprehend the opposite proposition, that God created some men to rule and others to be oppressed.
Whereas self-evident truths are not dependent upon empiricism and logic, this knowledge lies above them, not below. This distinction is vital in understanding the power of a liberal education. Plato may give the best description of this process.7 Quoting Socrates, he speaks of learning as a journey with identifiable stages: training the physical body and the moral sense, understanding the world though learning and experience, development of reason through mathematics, and finally knowing8 fundamental principles through dialogue with oneself or others. In pondering these stages, it appears that this ability to know is developed sequentially after years of searching for truth, as a combination of moral discernment, general knowledge, the ability to reason, and the ability to ponder and discuss. In Abolition of Man, C.S. Lewis seems to recognize this sequence as he first argues for the development of the one’s heart and then for the development of one’s reason.9
Developing moral character and the ability to know truth is the primary aim of the classics, and any institution devoted to their study.
Self-evident truths form the moral foundation of society. Yet, historically our ability to know these truths has been impeded by human weakness and error. Hence, whether right or wrong, many acts that one generation has felt morally justified in committing have been deemed immoral by subsequent generations. These adjustments in the moral canon10 are seen by some as reason to reject the idea of truth, or to despair of ever knowing it. Many even promote the idea that the search for truth is dangerous. President Obama spoke for this relativistic mindset when he alleged:
It was not just absolute power that the Founders sought to prevent. Implicit in [the Constitution’s] structure, in the very idea of ordered liberty, was a rejection of absolute truth, the infallibility of any idea or ideology or theology or “ism,” any tyrannical consistency that might lock future generations into a single, unalterable course….11
Two objections to this line of reasoning come to mind. First, the very existence of changes in the moral canon over time refutes the claim that it can “lock future generations.” Rather the moral canon challenges the innovator to a respectful duel of ideas. One may propose new moral ideals, but in so doing must grapple with thousands of years of argument. To evade the rigor of this challenge by simply denying absolute truth is an intellectual shortcut, and a cheat to the great men and women who have lived before and passed to us their wisdom.
Second, a rejection of truth risks throwing the proverbial baby out with the bath water. How are we to judge our actions or those of any government without a standard? If we have no standard of truth, then by default, self-interest becomes the standard by which to judge. You may have heard the argument, “I will respect your rights in the hopes that you will respect mine.” Said in other words it amounts to, “I’d abuse your rights, except for fear that you would abuse mine.” Consequently, threat of force replaces reason and morality as the compelling motive of men and governments. I do not deny that that self-interest has always been a powerful motivator in the lives of men, possibly even the primary motivator. But with whom would you feel most secure? A ruler who only recognizes self-interest and force as legitimate, or one who seeks to temper his own interest and power with a higher moral standard—a standard that has been debated and discussed for thousands of years?
The self-evident truths affirmed in the Declaration of Independence—initially overlooked by nearly everyone—have become the lens through which the Constitution is interpreted and the primary safeguard of our liberties. Yet their ability to discourage government abuse of power is dependent upon the extent we recognize the veracity of these truths. In the last century, nearly every expansion of government power has been justified by a rejection of the self-evident truths restricting it. In 1926 the eminent economist, John Maynard Keynes, stated:
Let us clear from the ground the metaphysical or general principles upon which, from time to time, laissez-faire has been founded. It is not true that individuals possess a prescriptive ‘natural liberty’ in their economic activities. . . We cannot therefore settle on abstract grounds, but must handle on its merits in detail what Burke termed “one of the finest problems in legislation, namely, to determine what the State ought to take upon itself to direct by the public wisdom, and what it ought to leave, with as little interference as possible, to individual exertion.12
Within three years the world would be thrust into the Great Depression. Having rejected the “principles” and “natural liberty” upon which free enterprise was based, mankind sought to determine the extent of government intervention “on its merits.” Within a decade, the annual budget of the United States tripled13 and national debt as a percentage of GDP increased from 15% to over 50%.14This was accompanied by an unprecedented shift of power from individuals and local institutions to the central government. Similar shifts occurred during the same period of time in nearly every other industrialized country.
In his inaugural speech in 2009 President Obama mirrored the words of Keynes:
The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works, whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified.15
Using what “works” as the criteria for government intervention, our federal spending has increased by over 27% in just two years.16 The national debt is expected to increase from 70% of GDP to over 100% by 2012.17 New regulations, industry bailouts and government expansion into healthcare are accelerating at a staggering pace. If this trend continues we will see a centralization of federal power that will exceed the welfare states of Europe. Of course, history teaches us another truth as well—one that is based on mankind’s experience and therefore not self-evident—that the political machinery used for wielding such power is almost always abused in due course.
The principles articulated in the Declaration of Independence stand as a bulwark against such danger. I encourage all, whether citizens of the United States or not, to carefully read it and regularly re-read it. But whether we recognize its principles as morally binding the actions of men and governments, or as mere metaphysical ideas to be discarded as they inhibit our particular interests—this will depend largely upon the development of our moral character and intellectual skill. Our goal at George Wythe University is to contribute to this development though the study of the classics and applying the principles found within them. For it is only by engaging in the Great Conversation of the ages and drinking from its wisdom that we refine our hearts and minds to recognize those self-evident moral truths which have stood the test of time.
The fifth president of George Wythe University (serving from 2010 -2012), Shane S. Schulthies received his Ph.D. in Exercise Science from Brigham Young University where he subsequently taught for 13 years. During his tenure he chaired the Human Subjects Committee, overseeing the ethical standards of all human research at Brigham Young University’s three campuses, and training faculty in ethics in human research across multiple disciplines. He has served on the Editorial Board for the Journal of Athletic Training, as an associate editor to the Journal of Sport Rehabilitation, and has been a contributing author for 23 peer-reviewed articles. He has lectured in the United States, Europe and Asia and has been awarded a variety of professional distinctions in research and teaching. Since engaging in a comprehensive personal education in the liberal arts, he has become significantly involved in political and legislative processes, including various roles in leadership, policy, campaign execution, and advocacy. Prior to his current position, he served as provost at GWU. He is married to the former Kimberly Hanson of San Francisco, California.
- Pauline Maier, Making Sense of the Fourth of July, American Heritage, Aug 1997, http://www.america.gov/st/pubs-english/1997/August/20050606131757pssnikwad0.3779871.html
- Writings of Jefferson, Bergh editor, volume 19, page 460. See also Pauline Maier, Making Sense of the Fourth of July, American Heritage, Aug 1997, http://www.america.gov/st/pubs-english/1997/August/20050606131757pssnikwad0.3779871.html.
- See Plato’s Republic
- The Greek term is gnosis.
- C.S. Lewis, in Abolition of Man, Harper, San Francisco, 1974
- In Abolition of Man, C.S Lewis called this the Tao, to represent the fusion of Eastern and Western Classics. As it is the basis of morality I will use the term moral cannon.
- Barack Obama, Audacity of Hope, Three Rivers Press, 2007, page 93
- John Maynard Keynes, End of Laissez Faire, http://www.panarchy.org/keynes/laissezfaire.1926.html
- Historical Tables, Budget Untied States Government, 2006, page 21, found at http://www.gpoaccess.gov/usbudget/fy06/pdf/hist.pdf
- These numbers were calculated by dividing the national debt figures found at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_public_debt by the GDP figures found at http://webcache.googleusercontent.com/search?q=cache:yCN4e1UaFooJ:www.bea.gov/national/xls/gdplev.xls+gdplev&cd=1&hl=en&ct=clnk&gl=us&client=safari.
- These numbers were calculated by dividing the national debt figures found at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_public_debt by the GDP figures found at http://webcache.googleusercontent.com/search?q=cache:yCN4e1UaFooJ:www.bea.gov/national/xls/gdplev.xls+gdplev&cd=1&hl=en&ct=clnk&gl=us&client=safari