“We hold these truths to be self-evident…” is the ringing phrase that opens the most famous sentence in the American Declaration of Independence, published on this day in 1776.
That wasn’t how it was first written, and I have long loved the story of how it came to be the way we know it today. It’s the supreme example of good editing, and a wonderful lesson in good writing.
The Declaration was drafted by Thomas Jefferson, renowned then, as today, for the eloquence of his prose. But the person who turned its opening in something truly unforgettable was Jefferson’s fellow revolutionary (and my favourite Founding Father), Benjamin Franklin. Walter Isaacson, a Franklin biographer, explains:
On June 21, after he had finished a draft and incorporated some changes from Adams, Jefferson had a copy delivered to Franklin…Franklin made only a few small changes, but one of them was resounding. Using heavy backslashes, he crossed out the last three words of Jefferson’s phrase, “We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable” and changed it to read: “We hold these truths to be self-evident.”
Genius. By sweeping away those big, windy adjectives (‘sacred and undeniable’) and replacing them with the unadorned simplicity of ‘self-evident’, Franklin makes the phrase, and the sentence, a hundred times more powerful.
Good style is never a superficial matter, and beneath Franklin’s modification lay a whole philosophy, as Isaacson goes on to explain:
The concept of “self-evident” truths came…from the scientific determinism of Isaac Newton and the analytic empiricism of Franklin’s close friend David Hume. Hume had distinguished between “synthetic” truths that describe matters of fact (such as “London is bigger than Philadelphia” ) and “analytic” truths that are self-evident by virtue of reason and definition. (“The angles of a triangle equal 180 degrees” or “All bachelors are unmarried.” ) When he chose the word “sacred,” Jefferson had suggested intentionally or unintentionally that the principle in question—the equality of men and their endowment by their creator with inalienable rights—was an assertion of religion. By changing it to “self-evident,” Franklin made it an assertion of rationality.
Happy birthday America.
(Isaacson's biography available here.)