July 3, 2012
To My Fellow Citizens:
Benjamin Franklin snatched lightning from the sky and scepters from the hands of tyrants, a contemporary once said of him. The lightning snatching refers to Franklin’s famous kite flying in a thunderstorm to prove the connection between electricity and lightning. As for snatching scepters from tyrants, this might refer to a number of Franklin’s activities. The one most fitting to recall on July 4 is Franklin’s connection to the Declaration of Independence.
The principal author of the Declaration, Thomas Jefferson, sent Franklin the draft, asking for his opinion. Franklin made several editorial suggestions, one of great importance. Jefferson had written “We hold these truths to be sacred and inviolable; that all men are created equal…” Franklin suggested instead, “We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal…”
Some have seen Franklin’s suggested change as an appeal to the scientific language of the day at the expense of the more religious sentiment present in the word “sacred.” Yet Franklin did not object to Jefferson’s mention of Providence; nor did he object to the phrase “the laws of nature and of nature’s God.” Neither was Franklin one to appeal to authority. What was his intention, then, in suggesting the phrase “self-evident”?
To understand this, we must recall the consequence of human equality. If human beings are equal, it means that no one has a right to rule another. Neither nature nor God has given to one individual, one family, one race, or one class, the right to rule others without their consent. To be ruled justly, each individual must consent to be ruled. Equality is the foundation of self-government, free government.
To call human equality sacred and inviolable establishes how important it is, but it does not tell us how we know it. But if men are to enjoy free government, to never be ruled unless they consent to it, they must know that they are equal. This must be the most unquestioned political knowledge a citizen possesses. It must be an idea that carries its own evidence with it. It must, in brief, be self-evident. Franklin suggested inserting the phrase “self-evident” in the Declaration to make the foundation of self-government depend on nothing else but the understanding of self-governing men.
It may seem to us, indeed, that human equality is self-evident, heirs as we are to the revolutionary accomplishments of men like Franklin. But is it really self-evident? Reflect for a moment on the wonderful irony at the heart of the Declaration: probably the two most intelligent and most variously and spectacularly talented of our statesmen joined in the founding of our nation by declaring themselves self-evidently equal to all others. Do not the evident inequalities of men like Franklin and Jefferson call into question the supposed self-evident equality of men?
In fact, they do not. What is self-evident when we consider Franklin is not that he was equal in intelligence or talents to other men. This is most self-evidently not the case. What is self-evident, however, is that no matter how superior Franklin was to others, he was still a human being. Although surpassingly intelligent, he was not all-knowing. Although exceedingly industrious, he was not all-powerful. He did not possess the attributes of a deity. He was human and self-evidently heir to human limitations and frailties. Due to his evident abilities, Franklin led every enterprise he was associated with. Due to his self-evident humanity, he did so only with the consent of those he led.
Franklin’s insertion of the term “self-evident” into the Declaration was a critical improvement of the text. Considering its meaning will always bring us to a better understanding of equality and self-government. In offering this improvement, Franklin was continuing—when he was 70—his life-long activity as an improver, as a man who sought better ways to do things, from cleaning streets to testing the forces of nature. This was in keeping with the argument of the Declaration. If men were equal, then they were not to be judged by their family, religion, race, or class but by what they did. Franklin discouraged would-be immigrants to the United States who had only their birth or family name to recommend them. In America, he wrote, “people do not enquire of a stranger, what is he? but what can he do?”
Franklin’s life, shaped by the knowledge that a man should be judged above all by what he does, embodied the principles of the Declaration before it was written. This is why he is often called the first American. By embodying these principles, Franklin was also manifesting most tangibly his equality with other men. When he arrived in Philadelphia, Franklin was a nearly penniless 17-year-old. He had only his talents and industry to rely on. In this, he was like all men. Nor could he predict, because it was not in his power, what would result from applying his talents industriously. In this, he was also like all men. He could not be assured of achievement, he could only work so as to deserve it.
More than his editing of the text, Franklin’s life was his greatest contribution to the Declaration. He is the model of an American. His life not only embodied the Declaration, it vindicated its principles and the hopes of those who drafted it and of those who then and ever after were inspired by it. Franklin first and above all others showed the good that a free man, a self-governing man, could do. And so in its own way does the life of any citizen who following Franklin strives to do the best no matter what he has. Such a life may not snatch lightning from the skies but it will continue to snatch scepters from tyrants.