The Declaration Of Independence

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 to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men.”

Peter Novick writes in 1988: “Rarely have so many ambiguous terms and dubious propositions been compressed into such a brief passage. By rigorous philosophical criteria the passage is nonsense. But far from being, in the well-worn phrase, “pernicious nonsense,” it is salutary nonsense. Belief in these “self-evident truths” has for more than two hundred years provided one of the strongest bulwarks of liberty and equality in the United States. I don’t know what it would mean if someone asked me whether I was for or against the ideas expressed in the passage, and I would have no idea how to respond.”

You can find reasons why, in some context, almost any statement is true. You just have to want to bad enough. For example, if you are talking to someone and you really want to understand what he is saying, you need to accept provisionally that what he is saying is true, and then look for ways it can be true. On the other hand, if you just want to dismiss something, you can usually find reasons to do so without much effort. Because we have limited time and energy, we tend to frequently dismiss people so that we can concentrate our limited resources on the few who matter to us.

If you are an American and you want to know about your history, you might want to look for ways that the Declaration of Independence might be true when it says that all men are created equal. Stanford historian Jack Rackove says: “When Jefferson wrote “all men are created equal” in the preamble to the Declaration, he was not talking about individual equality. What he really meant was that the American colonists, as a people, had the same rights of self-government as other peoples, and hence could declare independence, create new governments and assume their “separate and equal station” among other nations. But after the Revolution succeeded, Americans began reading that famous phrase another way. It now became a statement of individual equality that everyone and every member of a deprived group could claim for himself or herself. With each passing generation, our notion of who that statement covers has expanded. It is that promise of equality that has always defined our constitutional creed.”

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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