Ben Franklin made a seemingly insignificant edit to Jefferson’s draft of the Declaration of Independence. It wasn’t. It reveals a significant shortcoming of the Enlightenment.
The Declaration of Independence was published on this day in 1776. It was the fruit of a process beginning early that summer. The Continental Congress met in Philadelphia with the intention of voting for independence from England. It selected a committee to draft a declaration composed of John Adams, Franklin, Jefferson, Robert R. Livingston, and Roger Sherman. The big question was who would write the declaration?
Committee members were reluctant. After much discussion it was decided Thomas Jefferson would write the draft. He began his work on June 11, toiling in seclusion. When he presented his final draft, the committee further revised the document. This included a seemingly insignificant edit by Franklin.
Jefferson had originally written: “We hold these truths to be sacred, that all men are created equal…” Franklin scratched out “sacred” and scribbled in “self-evident.” By using the word “sacred,” Jefferson had “asserted that the equality of men and their endowment by their creator with inalienable rights was an assertion of religion,” writes Walter Isaacson. “Franklin’s edit turned it instead to an assertion of rationality.”¹
Franklin’s “self-evident” edit reveals a significant shortcoming of the Enlightenment. Jefferson and Franklin were Enlightenment men. The Enlightenment causes us to often assume these sorts of issues are either/or. Religion or rationality. Faith or reason.
There are of course ‘either/or’ situations. You’re either reading this column at this moment or you’re not. You can’t be reading it and not be reading it at the same time. But for eons it was assumed many (most?) issues are complex, both/and. Augustine for example held that it’s faith and reason, religion and rationality. “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.”
The Enlightenment rewired our brains to believe these sorts of issues are either/or. Knowledge became a quest for singular certainty. Iain McGilchrist writes how this led “ultimately to a large bias overall” for the left hemisphere over the right.² The left is narrowly focused. It prefers certainty and sharp boundaries. It tends to think either/or, making “divisions that may not exist according to the right hemisphere.” The right hemisphere is broadly vigilant. It sees complexity. It tends to think both/and.
A disconcerting chapter in McGilchrist’s book (The Master and His Emissary) discusses how the Western church has been shaped by the either/or Enlightenment. This can be observed in myriad ways, including an inordinate quest for certainty. Peter Enns touches on this in his new book, “The Sin of Certainty.” He roots the problem in “our Western rational mindset,” characterized by the evangelical church’s left-brain reliance on the assumptions of the Enlightenment. We are increasingly living in a post-Enlightenment world, and Enns suggests that the faster evangelicals catch on to this fact the better. If this intrigues you, my friend John Seel has written an excellent review of the book.
Franklin’s seemingly insignificant edit wasn’t insignificant. The Enlightenment often elides complex issues. Enlightenment people end up being reductionists—either/or. Certainty. Christians would benefit from recognizing this, appreciating how scripture paints a great many issues in shades of gray—both/and.
¹Walter Isaacson, Benjamin Franklin: An American Life (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2003), p. 312.
²Iain McGilchrist, The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010)