Is a "self-evident truth" really true? Is it proper for educators to teach the Declaration of Independence, which puts forth a series of self-evident truths? For most Americans, throughout most of American history, the answer to both these questions would be an immediate, "Of course." Today it's debatable. In fact, it's being debated in Trenton, New Jersey at this very moment.
An amazing story is unfolding in the New Jersey state legislature. A bill just passed by the state assembly would require New Jersey students to recite two sentences from the Declaration of Independence every morning, right after the Pledge of Allegiance. The bill is now before the state senate.
The bill's sponsors believe it an important part of civic education for students to have at least a passing familiarity with the ideas and language of the American Founding. Sounds innocuous enough, even patriotic. But there is a vocal faction in the state who will have none of that.
The controversy centers on the meaning of the first two sentences of the second paragraph of the Declaration: "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. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed."
Liberals object to that language. They say it may be harmful for children to learn. From a peculiar point of view, they are right.
A spokesperson for New Jersey Right to Choose, for example, worries that the words "unalienable rights" and "life" might be interpreted by some impressionable minds to mean that human beings have a right to life.
The president of the New Jersey Education Association, the state's largest teachers' union, wonders which part of the Declaration is to be recited. He's worried about who gets to make that decision. For some reason, the idea that human beings are created equal, and therefore possess equal "unalienable rights" that government is supposed to protect, makes union leaders uncomfortable.
The radical legal implication of "unalienable rights" is that the law should offer equal protection to all citizens. This poses a problem for those who favor affirmative action, which by definition treats people differently according to group membership.
Although some people may see this updated "Battle of Trenton" as little more than petty political bickering, the debate points to something more important.
Those two controversial sentences of the Declaration gave the moral justification and cause for America's entire constitutional structure of government. When the Declaration announces the self evident truth that "all men are created equal," it was never intended to be a statement of the physical condition of any particular group or class of human beings. America's Founders were well aware that many people in 1776 were not free to exercise their rights. That was the case throughout the whole of human history.
But, according to no less an authority than Abraham Lincoln, in declaring the natural equality of all human beings, America's Founders "meant to set up a standard maxim for free society, which should be familiar to all, and revered by all; constantly looked to, constantly labored for, and even though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated, and thereby constantly spreading and deepening its influence, and augmenting the happiness and value of life to all people...."
That statement of human equality meant simply that no one person can rightfully lay claim to the right to rule over someone else without that person's consent. The Founders believed that government by consent is not a matter of preference or prejudice, but springs from nature itself. It is on the basis of the self evident truth of human equality that tyranny--a word much out of fashion today--can be condemned as immoral and wrong.
The truth is that many people, especially the elite in the universities and in public service, no longer think there is such a thing as a "self evident truth." At most, there are competing "values" or "points of view." If the Declaration of Independence were re-written in today's intellectual and moral climate, it would read something like "We hold these values to be our preferences...."
Of course, many people throughout history have "preferred" despotism or tyranny — tyranny is a "value," too, after all. If individual rights and self-government are merely preferences, then it is difficult to see the difference in principle between freedom and tyranny, or freedom and slavery.
Lawmakers and educators who wave off the principles of the Declaration out of a concern for fairness and freedom reject the only ground that supports fairness and freedom. Surely our children deserve a better education than that.