A Hinge in History

Michael Metzger

"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." Those remarkable words, penned by Thomas Jefferson, caused the patriot physician Benjamin Rush to declare: "’Tis done! We have become a nation." Yet that’s not what Jefferson wrote – at least not in his first draft. Benjamin Franklin served as Jefferson’s copy editor and scratched out one word, replacing it with a seemingly insignificant alternative that would eventually relegate religion to a day called Sunday and a place called church. Franklin’s revision makes the Declaration of Independence and July 4th a hinge in history.

What was Franklin’s key change?

Thomas Jefferson described our inalienable rights as "sacred" in his first draft of the Declaration of Independence. Franklin scratched out "sacred" and scribbled in "self-evident." And, as Walter Isaacson, president of The Aspen Institute points out

By using the word "sacred," Jefferson had asserted, intentionally or not, that the principle in question – the equality of men and their endowment by their creator with inalienable rights – was an assertion of religion. Franklin’s edit turned it instead to an assertion of rationality.1

Here’s another way to put it: Jefferson was willing to acknowledge that our rights are based on holy revelation (i.e., the Bible). Franklin said no – they are based on human reason. Both men were warm to religion; but Jefferson’s "sacred" truths were based on a Middle Ages consensus, an epoch when "religion was not a particular way of life but the way of all life."2  From the late 300s to the 1600s, "Medieval culture was a culture of the Book, and in the Middle Ages, the Book was the Bible."3 In the Middle Ages, the question "was no longer whether society would be Christian, but rather how this was to be realized."4

Benjamin Franklin, on the other hand, believed we were turning a page in history – that the Declaration of Independence could be a hinge; swinging into a new period when reason, science, and skepticism would be "a clear advance over medieval arguments from authority and legend."5  For Franklin, these truths were "self-evident;" not sacred. He was not dismissing religion; he was limiting it to whatever comported to human reason. Benjamin Franklin was the quintessential Enlightenment man – believing we should only embrace what the enlightened mind apprehends.

The significance of this alteration was that over the course of the next 125 years Americans would more closely associate reason with facts (those things that are "self-evident") and religion with values (issues that cannot be proven by human reason and science). Facts would increasingly be viewed as what make the world go ’round Monday through Friday; values are what we play with on the weekends. That’s why Franklin’s insertion of "self-evident" eventually relegated religion to a day called Sunday and a place called church. And that’s why July 4, 1776 is a hinge in history.

There are at least three lessons from Franklin’s edit. The first concerns the perennial debate as to whether the Founders were Christians, deists, or atheists. The answer is "All of the Above." They were "men of complex faiths. Raised in a largely Christian universe, they were shaped by Enlightenment ideas about the nature of God. Some were devout Christians, some were probably more deist than not; some were both, depending on the moment."6

The second take-away is the perennial debate as to whether America was founded as a "Christian nation." The language of the Declaration of Independence indicates we owe a debt to Christian ideas, but were not founded as a Christian nation.

The third is that faith and reason ought never to have been split apart. The ancient Judeo-Christian tradition held that faith and reason are mutually supportive. St. Augustine, for example, believed reason was indispensable to faith: "Heaven forbid that we should believe in such a way as not to accept or seek reasons, since we could not even believe if we did not possess rational souls."

It might have been better if Jefferson had added Franklin’s edit along with retaining his original idea – that these truths are sacred and 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 might have linked faith and reason rather than opening the door to the dismissal of religion in the years to come.

1 Walter Isaacson, Benjamin Franklin: An American Life (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2003), p.312
2 Christopher Dawson, Religion and the Rise of Western Culture (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1950), pp.271-72
3 Norman Cantor, The Civilization of the Middle Ages (New York: Harper Perennial)
4 Martin Marty, A Short History of Christianity, 2nd ed. (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1987), p.75
5 Garry Wills, Henry Adams and the Making of America (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2005), p.35
6 Jon Meacham, "God and Country: Tolerance in the Age of Ann Coulter." Washington Post, July 2, 2006


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