What If “Self-Evident Truths” Turn Out To Be False?

Unitarian Universalist Meeting House November 11, 2018

The mid-term elections are over, though there are some contests where a winner is not known. Most of us are happy with some results and unhappy with others. And many of us had entertained a hope that the great chasm that now exists between Americans would be bridged somehow, that people on both sides of the cultural divide could see reality in the same way, that we could talk to anyone about the things that we disagree about without the conversation becoming disagreeable. Maybe we could look on Thanksgiving dinner with anticipation rather than dread.

Alas, I think we are as far apart as ever. One side’s truth is the other side’s lies.

Can we get back to civilized discourse? Not by just hurling insulting terms at one another; but I have a hope, perhaps a naive one, that we can have an honest discussion about the roots of our values. That is the theme I want to touch today.

As I said a couple of weeks ago, I have found great insight and stability in reading this new book by Jill LePore, a Harvard historian and writer for the New Yorker, entitled These Truths[1]. It is a one-volume history of the United States from Columbus’s landing to the present day. In it, Prof. Lepore looks at the values of equality, liberty and popular sovereignty contained in the Declaration of Independence and how these ideals have intersected with the realities on the ground as the country developed. To summarize a very complex and winding story, LePore demonstrates that what the Declaration calls “self-evident truths” have never been fully accepted, let alone implemented at any point in our history.

How did the Declaration get written? The Continental Congress had passed Virginia Delegate Henry Lee’s resolution for independence, but wanted a complete declaration with justifications, and they appointed a five-member committee to draft it; three of the members were Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and John Adams. Jefferson was selected to give it the first try.

He did not write on a blank slate; George Mason had authored a Virginia Declaration of Rights two years before. But Jefferson improved on it. And the Committee improved on Jefferson’s first draft.

The heart of the Declaration is not the laundry list of grievances against the King, but the theory of government contained in the second paragraph. It is there that Jefferson makes the case that if a government meets certain conditions, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it. The rest of the document consists of facts making the case that King George’s action justify the separation, that is, that they meet the test set forth in the second paragraph.

Jefferson’s draft is printed on the front of your Order of Service. He originally wrote:

“We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable: that all men are created equal and independent, that from that equal creation they derive rights inherent and inalienable, among which are the preservation of life, and liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, that to secure these ends, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, that whenever any government shall become destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it, and to institute new government.”

Now this language was later amended in a way I will get to in a moment, but Jill Lepore identifies in it three basic ideas which made it into the final draft and which form the basis of the American idea today: political equality, natural rights and popular sovereignty. Political equality, that all are created equal. Natural rights, those rights which accrue because of nature, and therefore can’t be taken away. And popular sovereignty, the notion that all power proceeds from the will of the people.

It is these three ideas which Jill LePore’s fascinating book traces through the history of the nation.

When Franklin saw Jefferson’s draft, he took his pen and scratched out “sacred and undeniable” and suggested that “these truths” were, instead, “self-evident.” Franklin’s amendment was adopted, but Prof. Lepore points out that the difference between the two ways of stating it was

“More than a quibble. Truths that are sacred and undeniable are god-given and divine, the stuff of religion. Truths that are self-evident are laws of nature, empirical and observable, the stuff of science. This divide has nearly rent the republic apart.”[2]

Remember that these patriots were rethinking government at about the same time that some ministers within New England Congregationalism were rethinking religion. Those ministers sought a religion which was compatible with reason, which liberated Jesus from being the Son of God and treated the Bible as a humanly-written which could be studied as any other text. This movement was later called Unitarianism.

Both Unitarianism and the American Revolution took place within the larger intellectual context of the Enlightenment. One of the big questions considered by Enlightenment thinkers was what is truth or how we can know anything? There were two schools of philosophy in those days: the Idealists such as Descartes and Liebniz, believed that some knowledge is inborn in the mind. The opposing school was the Empiricists: Locke, Berkeley and Hume, who believed that all we can know we have to learn through our five senses. The Empiricists were eternal skeptics: nothing should be taken as true unless there was evidence for it. Empiricism became the basic attitude of the discipline of natural philosophy or as we would call it today, science. Truth in science is not based on faith or authority or innate knowledge, but on evidence.

But of course, the Founding Fathers were not expounding science but a political philosophy. When Franklin struck out Jefferson’s “sacred and undeniable” and inserted “self-evident,” he shifted the frame of reference in favor of the Empiricists, but did he thereby weaken the three fundamental values asserted?

Prof. LePore thinks that the significance of this change can be overblown:

“The real dispute isn’t between Jefferson and Franklin, each attempting, in his way, to reconcile faith and reason, as many have tried both before and since. The real dispute is between ‘these truths’ and the course of events: Does American History prove these truths or does it belie them?”[3]

If the question is the verdict of history itself, I think the trial is still in progress. It is easy to argue that since Jefferson and many of the signers of the Declaration were slaveholders, they didn’t really believe every person had a natural right to liberty because they didn’t grant that to their slaves. They weren’t about to grant to Native Americans any hint of the kind of self-determination or popular sovereignty that they were declaring was the natural right of an English subject against the King. And they treated neither indigenous people nor African people nor women as equal to white male Europeans.

If the ideals expressed in the Declaration were really “self-evident truths,” wouldn’t the Founders had to emancipate slaves, liberate women, make a fair accommodation with the Natives whose land they were occupying?

When we are constructing a philosophical system, we start out by stating the assumptions that we are starting with, the starting points. These are usually called the a priori propositions, they are stated before all others, they are the starting points for the whole system. But if you work this way, you are not saying that those a priori assumptions are true, you are saying were going to call them true for the purposes of explaining the system.

That is one way Jefferson could have proceeded, but he didn’t. He didn’t say, suppose for the moment that all people are created equal. Just imagine if they were endowed with certain rights, say, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Now this may seem a crazy idea, but what if government were composed of the will of the people.

But he didn’t say it like that. He said these are truths, they really obtain, and the proof is – well, we don’t need any proof because the truth of these propositions is “self-evident.” That is, the evidence for the truth of the propositions is lying there in plain sight, like the purloined letter in the Poe story.

The problem with this line of argument is that if the truth of these propositions were really self-evident, they would never be disputed in prior or subsequent history. Let’s look at that.

Certainly history prior to the American Revolution doesn’t show any consensus about the truth of these three propositions. The law and practice up to that time did not recognize the equality of all people but rather made distinctions among them on the basis of race, wealth, bloodlines, privilege, sex etc. There was no recognition that everyone had natural rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. And so far from recognizing sovereignty in the will of the people, the dominant political philosophy of the day was the divine right of kings.

And history after the Declaration also fails to record a consensus that the truths set out there are “self-evident.” The persistence of slavery alone is powerful witness to the disputed nature of these truths. As the conflict between proslavery and antislavery forces reached its fever pitch in the 1850, there was a lively debate about whether the signers of the Declaration had even seen African Americans as people. And the Dred Scott decision of 1858 certainly did not see them as fully people in a political or moral sense.

Throughout the period before the Civil War, slavery’s defenders defended on the grounds that all people were not created equal. If the proposition that Jefferson said was “self-evident” were really so, it would not be open for debate. But in the South and even in the United States Congress for decades, it was the morality of slavery which was not open to dispute.

When Lincoln went to Gettysburg in the middle of the bloody contest, he reached back to the truths of the declaration of independence, saying that the nation was “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” The horrible war in which the nation was ensnared he called a great testing ground as whether “any nation so conceived and so dedicated would long endure.”

And of course, from that conflict, because of that conflict, slavery was ended. It was not ended because slavery’s defenders suddenly woke up to the fact that it was wrong, much less that the wrongness was “self-evident.” Slavery ended because the Union won the war militarily and part of the strategy for winning that war was the emancipation proclamation and the self emancipation of slaves which followed.

No, those truths put into the Declaration of Independence so many years ago are not self-evident; they could not have been so hotly disputed if they were indisputable.

And they are not self-executing either. They require a constant struggle. They are debated, that’s why they are alive in our consciousness today.

These truths – equality, rights to life, liberty and happiness, popular sovereignty – are simply not self-proving. But they are neither true nor false in any final sense. Rather, they are as true as we make them.

They are transcendent ideals, dreams if you will, and they have never been and will probably never be fully realized in American political life and culture. But they stand as a kind of goalpost towards which we struggle.

So the title to this sermon is in a sense a trick question. What would we do if supposedly self-evident truths turned out to be false? We would work harder to make them true.

Shortly after the secession of the southern states, Alexander Stevens, the Vice President of the Confederacy gave a speech in which he explained that the Confederate States were founded on an assumption of inequality, because the equality set forth in the Declaration of Independence was fundamentally wrong.

[The]foundations [of our new government] are laid, its corner‑ stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.”

But Stevens’s saying that the idea of equality was false does not make it so, any more than Jefferson saying it was “self-evident” proves it was true. Its truth was bolstered by the military result of the Civil War, and the constitutional amendments which followed that war. But yet that truth was challenged by the decades of Jim Crow and by the resistance to the Civil Rights movement. And it is challenged today in the obscene rates of mass incarceration, in the unequal distribution of wealth, in restrictions on the right to vote, in the increased vulnerability that people of color experience in dealing with police.

In 2008, this country elected its first President of black African descent. Many people saw that as a symbolic assertion of the truth of the proposition that all were created equal. But some could not accept that, and set about to prove that the new President’s election was based on a lie for he was not actually born in the United States. Though that President was re-elected, the uneasiness with him grew in certain quarters, and the person who most prominently denied his legitimacy won the presidency the next time.

With this history, is it any wonder that we have no overriding national consensus on what is truth and what is a lie?

On this centennial of the Armistice which ended World War I, on this eightieth anniversary of Kristallnacht when the brutality of politically-motivated mobs was unleashed against the Jews of Germany, can we find in our founding document any transcendent values on which all Americans can agree? I don’t see the road map right now to such a place, but I don’t give up hope that we might ultimately get there.

Langston Hughes’s great poem talks about redeeming America. The right talks about “taking America back.” At least on that plane, both sides use the same rhetoric. Is this a basis for a conversation about what truths are going to prevail?

I’ll leave you with Hughes’s conclusion:

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,

The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,

We, the people, must redeem

The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.

The mountains and the endless plain—

All, all the stretch of these great green states—

And make America again!


Reading for What if self-evident truths were a lie

Let America Be America Again

Langston Hughes, 1902 ‑ 1967

Let America be America again.

Let it be the dream it used to be.

Let it be the pioneer on the plain

Seeking a home where he himself is free.

(America never was America to me.)

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed—

Let it be that great strong land of love

Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme

That any man be crushed by one above.

(It never was America to me.)

O, let my land be a land where Liberty

Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,

But opportunity is real, and life is free,

Equality is in the air we breathe.

(There’s never been equality for me,

Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)

Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?

And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?

I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,

I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.

I am the red man driven from the land,

I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek—

And finding only the same old stupid plan

Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.


In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned

That’s made America the land it has become.

O, I’m the man who sailed those early seas

In search of what I meant to be my home—

For I’m the one who left dark Ireland’s shore,

And Poland’s plain, and England’s grassy lea,

And torn from Black Africa’s strand I came

To build a “homeland of the free.”

The free?

Who said the free? Not me?

Surely not me? The millions on relief today?

The millions shot down when we strike?

The millions who have nothing for our pay?

For all the dreams we’ve dreamed

And all the songs we’ve sung

And all the hopes we’ve held

And all the flags we’ve hung,

The millions who have nothing for our pay—

Except the dream that’s almost dead today.

O, let America be America again—

The land that never has been yet—

And yet must be—the land where every man is free.

The land that’s mine—the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME—

Who made America,

Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,

Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,

Must bring back our mighty dream again.

Sure, call me any ugly name you choose—

The steel of freedom does not stain.

From those who live like leeches on the people’s lives,

We must take back our land again,


O, yes,

I say it plain,

America never was America to me,

And yet I swear this oath—

America will be!

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,

The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,

We, the people, must redeem

The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.

The mountains and the endless plain—

All, all the stretch of these great green states—

And make America again!

[1]New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2018

[2]Lepore, p. xv.

[3]Id, p. xv.

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