Sunday, May 2, 2010

What was the Declaration of Independence?

In response to the ongoing back and forth here at American Creation regarding the nature of the Declaration of Independence, I can only recommend that folks read Pauline Meier's majestic book on the making of the Declaration, American Scripture.  I am about half-way through it, and am blown away by the depth of her scholarship.  The normal story about the Declaration isn't the full story...

18 comments:

Pinky said...

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Per Timothy Ferris in his book, The Science of Liberty:
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The Declaration of Independence, which Jefferson drafted in Jacob Graff's rooming house on a portable desk of his own design, is steeped in the language of science and of the Enlightenment philosophers inspired by science. The reference in its first sentence to "the laws of nature and of nature's God" echoes Descartes' "laws of motion" and Newton's "laws of nature." Its second sentence asserts as "self-evident" certain "truths," among them that all men are created equal and are endowed with inherent and inalienable right such as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The term "self-evident" apparently was inserted by Benjamin Franklin, to whom Jefferson had submitted his draft for review--Jefferson had written "sacred and undeniable"--and its effect was to shift the argument toward a grounding in science and mathematics. Franklin and Jefferson would have first encountered the term "self-evident" in the axioms of Euclid's geometry, which in those days was usually taught from a popular textbook prepared by Isaac Newton's teacher Isaac Barrow. It showed up as well in lectures on oratory composed by the English chemist Joseph Priestly, who was a friend of both Jefferson and Franklin, and in the first alphabetical encyclopedia published in English--John Harris's Lexicon Technicum, a copy of which Jefferson had in his library--where science is described as being founded on "self-evident principles." John Locke composed an essay on self-evident axioms in mathematics and mathematical science. "In all sorts of Reasoning," he wrote, "every single Argument should be managed as a Mathematical Demonstration." Jefferson echoed Locke so strikingly in the Declaration that he eventually felt obliged to maintain that he had not been imitating Locke and had indeed "turned to neither book nor pamphlet while writing it."

The Declaration is structured as a syllogism. Its major premise asserts as axiomatic that people may "alter or abolish" a government that denies of just such conduct: "To prove this let facts be submitted to a candid world." ....

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If you have a copy of the book, you might want to read further on page 93 and 94.
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Mark in Spokane said...

Interesting, but not what I was getting at. The Declaration's words are not as important as its effect, and its effect was tailored to respond to a very specific set of circumstances. The whereas clauses of the Declaration are where the real heart of the document are found. The ideological posturing -- the Enlightenment rhetoric, the abstract discussion of rights -- are pleading components based on English history and then-contemporary political philosophy.

What the whereas sections tell us is that the Declaration and American independence were reactive ssteps, not proactive ones. The colonists were responding to a series of royal attacks -- they were anticipating a huge influx of Royal troops, most of them German mercenaries, to land and begin operations against colonial settlements. War on the part of the Crown against the colonies was a reality and had been for over a year before independence was declared. That's the essential context to the document that most discussions miss out on. That's the reality that the Declaration was addressing. That's what we have to keep in mind when we are talking about the Declaration, its language, and its meaning.

Tom Van Dyke said...

I read on the internet the 3rd section of the book is how Congress altered Jefferson's text---which he wasn't very happy about, and also contradicts modern hagiography, since that's his biggest accomplishment to my mind. Looking forward to your report.

[Very interesting essay here, by someone with no skin in the game, and well worth a look for readers of this blog.

http://www.sullivan-county.com/deism.htm

It also mentions in passing that the "nature's God" riff originates with Blackstone, not TJ.

Most interesting is it separating the British "Age of Reason" from "the Enlightenment," the rather unfortunate French version. I find that a useful distinction.]

Pinky said...

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The point in this thread is not to learn the origin of such terms as "nature's god"; but, to ascertain what was meant when that "god" was invoked.
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So, If Thomas Jefferson, Blackstone, or Euclid were the first to use the term makes no difference to our discover in this thread. The question has to do with what they meant by writing, "nature's god" into the Declaration of Independence.
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Pinky said...

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I should have used was instead of were.
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If anyone would like eighteen photos of the collapsing oil rig, send me an email and I'll send them to you along with an email by someone involved.
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Tom Van Dyke said...

Don't worry about minor grammar errors, Pinky, or even major ones. They're clearly mental typos---and I meself commit many---comments sections are conversations.

You've already proven on this blog that you're a consummately literate man, so your readers care only about what you say, not how you say it. You make yourself clear, to your credit.

On to what you said, then:

[Jefferson's D of I] is steeped in the language of science and of the Enlightenment philosophers inspired by science. The reference in its first sentence to "the laws of nature and of nature's God" echoes Descartes' "laws of motion" and Newton's "laws of nature."

The problem here is that William Blackstone was extremely well-known and read in the Founding era. What Jefferson personally thought or meant by "nature's God" had no real significance to the people who signed the D of I. Blackstone was an acknowledged giant; Jefferson was then a young unknown. They signed the D of I by its commonly-understood meaning, what Blackstone meant, in context. Without examining Blackstone's context, we understand nothing.

The term is in Jefferson's hands, but he is only borrowing it.

Pinky said...

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First off, I didn't write it. It was offered as a quotation from Ferris' book.
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Thanks for the compliment. I am often told that my comments are difficult to understand.
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It wasn't just Jefferson who signed the Declaration. He may have composed it generally; but, they all pretty much agreed with what it declared.
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We would be hard pressed to decide between Blackstone and Jefferson when it comes to bright stars.
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John F. Kennedy, speaking to a group of forty some Nobel Prize winners gathered in the White House said they were the most notable group that ever met in the White House except for Thomas Jefferson when he dined alone.
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King of Ireland said...

Tom,

I heard you wonder aloud in a comment the other day if some of your gems you post as links in the comment sections get buried because it is not on the main page?

I would say yes. More than once I go back to re-read posts when doing new posts or reviewing discussions on this site and saw a link I missed in the heat of the moment.

At least 3 times it changed my understanding and cemented some things in my mind I was mulling over.

So, I think at least some of the time you should post them on the main page much like Mark did today. You do not have to comment, though I appreciate when you do, just linked it and let people go check it out for themselves.

King of Ireland said...

Holy crap this dude hit is right on with the nature and natures God thing! Amos goes into this in his book and I was going to get to it when this whole interposition debate was concluded. Seems the term was used for hundreds of years in Christianity that promoted the use of natural law.

Amos goes into a long historical view that lost me even the first few times I read it. The Blackstone angle is much simpler and a direct connection.

Someone needs to write some academic pieces on this topic. It is almost unexplored at the PHD level. Amos has some good points but I also see some real holes and false logic in his work. He makes leaps that may be true but does not prove them.

We are going through this battle as a nations right now. I would have called myself a Libertarian even two weeks ago. But when I read about what a Paleo-Conservative is it fit more with me.

The main difference is that former see the Christian West as something worth preserving and the a healthly percentage of the latter seek to destroy it.

Same freaking arguments 200+ years later!

You gotta do a post on this Tom.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Hey, K of I, I have always viewed the the American Creation blog as a process, an ongoing discussion and a joint inquiry. Not a debate or an election with winners and losers. At least that's how I went about things here. I never expected anyone to take my word or opinion on anything. I wanted them to test it for themselves.

Tom,

I heard you wonder aloud in a comment the other day if some of your gems you post as links in the comment sections get buried because it is not on the main page?

I would say yes. More than once I go back to re-read posts when doing new posts or reviewing discussions on this site and saw a link I missed in the heat of the moment.

At least 3 times it changed my understanding and cemented some things in my mind I was mulling over.


Yeah. Contrary to popular belief---Pinky's and our friend Angie's---although I have my POV, what I want most is for people to check out the "wisdom" of our current age for themselves. Or mine. Examine for themselves the evidence, in the original documents. I want people to read Vermigli for themselves. Me, I just learned something, and I'm no Protestant, or Calvinist.

Test everything, hold onto what is good.

Just don't tell me that X is as good as Y. That insults all our intelligence. People are free, sure, but on this mortal coil, people have to make choices about what is good, better or best.

That is the human condition, and the price of freedom. We have to make choices.

Based on an "informed conscience," as one man put it. Ignorance is no defense, if remaining ignorant means we refuse to inform our consciences, refuse to ask the hard questions of ourselves.

I piss people off by asking them to ask themselves the hard questions. They pretend they don't hear those questions, but they ain't fooling nobody, not themselves and not me.

OK, King, I gotta make more mainpage posts. Been wasting too much time in the comments sections. Time to man up and piss even more people off than Phil and Angie.

;-[D>

Thx, dude. If you ain't pissing people off, you ain't doing it right.

Pinky said...

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Well, we all might learn something--even the ones that already know it all.
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The confusion over the idea of "Nature's God" and the "Law of Nature" seems to have been originally settled as merely being another way of talking about Jehovah God and His law for the universe. But, then some yahoo stepped in and mentioned the fact that these references had something to do with how things actually work in nature, i.e., the earth not being the center of creation and that it revolved around the sun. And people like the much discounted Thomas Jefferson spent much time in discovering nature and nature's ways.
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So, in the end, we are forced to realize that Nature's God and Jehovah God are two different entities--no matter how much research we have done in the past.
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It is important to know the history of the usage that gives us the understanding involved.
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We cannot get stuck on some agenda we hold--we have to be able to give up on what we want to be the truth so we can accept the better truth whatever it is.
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Pinky said...

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Just don't forget, it is the truth that sets us free.
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To be set free, to have the chains that hold us in bondage dissolved, that's a wonderful thought.
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Pinky said...

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Should we take anything Adam Smith had to say into account regarding the American Creation and the Declaration of Independence?
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Huh?
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bpabbott said...

Re: "Nature's God and Jehovah God are two different entities"

A subtle correction: Once it is agreed there is only one God, then Nature's God and Jehovah God must be him. It is the perception of the entity that changes.

Re: "Should we take anything Adam Smith had to say into account regarding the American Creation and the Declaration of Independence?"

Adam Smith was a favorite of mine when I studied economics in college. Recently, I purchased a book (Adam Smith and the Origins of American Enterprise) on his impact on our nation. I've read a little, but not enough to post anything substantial.

My impression at the moment is that Adam Smith had a significant impact on Madison. How much impact he had on the other founders I can't say.

For anyone interesting there is some relevant information in Wikipedia's Classical Liberalism article.

The short bio at the Univ. of Virginia also includes some comments on the Scottish Enlightenment's impact on Madison.

Tom Van Dyke said...

A subtle correction: Once it is agreed there is only one God, then Nature's God and Jehovah God must be him. It is the perception of the entity that changes.

Yes. Whatever reservations Jefferson personally had about Jehovah, in writing the public document that was the D of I, not only the signers but the world at large took it as agreeable to Jehovah.

And per my note to Mark about what I'd read about Meier's book part III, the Continental Congress added the "Supreme Judge of the World" and "firm Reliance on the Protection of divine Providence" to Jefferson's draft.

Although men like Jefferson might have had their own doubts about the existence of Jehovah, the God of the Bible, I think the burden of proof remains on those who might argue that "nature's God" was not understood by the vast majority as synonymous with Jehovah, the God of the Bible.
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For the record, Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations wasn't published until 1776, so its effect on the declaration would be negligible, if not absolutely zero.

However, I believe we find Madison echo in the Memorial&Remonstrance Smith's argument that state-financed clergymen get lazy and unresponsive to the spiritual needs of their congregations, and more theologically interesting, they become more dogmatic since they are unanswerable to their flock in terms of making their living.

There's also more influence claimed for Adam Smith on Madison, Franklin and Hamilton, the lattermost credited for America being founded as a "commercial republic."

This indeed seems to be a good book to study about Adam Smith and America, IMO better than the "scientific" origins of the Declaration, which I found to be a hypothesis in search of evidence, instead of the other way around.

You're in the zone, Ben. Hat tip. Pls let me know if the Roy C. Smith book mentions Madison's M&R on gov't-paid clergy being toejam, echoing Smith's argument. I noticed it while reading both men, and have really been meaning to get back to it to check and re-check before posting, as is my custom. It was a fascinating connection, a damn good argument on its own merits, and a smoking gun for Adam Smith in Madison.

Pinky said...

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A quote from one of the reviews on the book referrenced by Tom:
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"Adam Smith's new economic ideas of 1776 appeared just in time to have maximal impact on the thinking of America's founding fathers...In this engaging economic and intellectual history, Roy Smith recounts how the United States became the most opulent of countries by putting into practice what the great Scottish economist preached."

--Richard Sylla, president of the American Association of Economic Historians
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bpabbott said...

Regarding Roy Smith's book, I've been side tracked by an essay specifically on the topic of Smith's influence on Madison.

I'm working on a short post now.

I hope to be done by the weekend.

King of Ireland said...

Good stuff on Smith guys. I was just thinking the other day that there needs to be an American Creation type blog that focuses on economics instead of religion. Acton kind of does both but not really like it is done hear through group inquiry.