Not self-evident

As a history professor, I repeatedly covered different aspects of the US Declaration of Independence in class. As a patriot, I want students to know and think about our nation’s vital texts. One of the most novel uses I have found for discussing this text lies in the question of the meaning of Thomas Jefferson’s statement: “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.”

This statement has been useful to me both when I used to teach English comp, back in the 1990s, and more recently, when I talk about syllogisms in intro to philosophy. The point in each case is “how we define terms of an argument” and “language in context.” To begin, I ask the students repeatedly to define the word “man” — and once I have led them down that path, I ask them if I am a man and they always insist that I am not. Then I read them Jefferson’s sentence. This lesson works pretty much 95 percent of the time, since everyone insists that I am not a man, but none of them have so far been willing to say that I am not included in “all men.” As a tendency the men in the class think this is a silly way to make the point, and the women are somewhat more bothered.

I picked the example because I would have agreed (in the contemporary present) that of course, “all men” includes me. I could note that the point is not limited to the Declaration of Independence; there are issues like this in almost all English literature, and certainly in the Bible. Does anyone seriously think that “Happy is the man …” at the beginning of Psalms refers only to men? Or that when the angels announced the good news to the shepherds, that it was only intended for men and not women? Although Christian congregations have been fighting about how to word things at least since I was a little girl, in the wider world, times have changed and language reflects the changes. I’m not a radical in either direction when it comes to language changes. My response to charges of exaggerated political correctness has always been that (a) I want to be polite and not hurtful to others; and (b) I want to be accurate.

In US history, I have told students that in 1776, “all men” did not even mean all men, but through a series of painful struggles, the nation has moved to a place where at least in ideal terms, “all men” meant “all people.” Depending on my mood, I have also tended to say that there is good evidence that the trend would continue. I tend to take the long view, although I have never wanted to say “be patient” to marginalized groups while their civil rights were in question. A human life is only so long, and daylight is burning. But things I have said certainly contributed to the impression that I held that view. And now, several days ago, five justices erased me from the society of “all men.” “All men” have an inalienable right to things like the bodily autonomy that is the very basis of liberty. I no longer do.

I’m doing the Erma Bombeck fourth again this year. The green peas ripened this week and so I made a pea salad and in a little bit, I will go over to Obscura‘s. I am hoping for a smaller version of the classic Wisconsin summer potluck kind of meal. But I can’t help but think, “Gentlemen may cry peace, peace, but there is no peace.” I have declared an embargo on political discussion with HL and my family (who are all conservatives of various stripes). At work we have implicitly agreed not to talk about it. We’re all frightened, I think, of what could happen if we did.

Arguably, a more important part of the Declaration than its brief throwaway about human rights — Jefferson assumed that we all knew what John Locke and his contemporaries had said — lies in its justification of popular sovereignty.

That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

More and more people I know are thinking this, even if they aren’t saying it.

But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.-

We’re going to have to find a way to talk about it. Before there is no more “we.” We’ve been headed that way for a while.

~ by Servetus on July 4, 2022.

24 Responses to “Not self-evident”

  1. I just listened to an interesting podcast from Jon Stewart (I know he’s not everyone’s bag) and he was discussing the ruling with three law professors, all female. Their take on the interpretation of the Constitution, and the justification they used for their ruling, was very interesting.


    • Yeah, not a fan of Stewart, and don’t know as much as a law professor. My understanding is they decided the due process clause of the 14th amendment is not applicable (there is no right to privacy), and that they are prioritizing the 10th amendment (it is a matter that remains open to the states to regulate). Those judges are all originalists of some stripe or other (and thus opposed to the argument I made here that “times change”). Was there more than that? (please save me having to listen to Stewart!)


      • They focused on alito’s opinion and the precedents (not sure if that is the right word) he used to base his opinion. One of the professors spoke about the 13 th century decision he used, and basically how all his arguments were very outdated (same point as you are making-see, you do know as much as a law professor!) Also they touched on the ramifications of the decision (in vitro fertilization for example). I guess the part I found most interesting was how long the Republicans ( referring to those who wished to reverse roe v wade) had worked for this, and how it probably would take an equal amount of time for the decision to be reversed. The timeline they quoted was 40 years.

        Stewart mainly listened to these ladies, and didn’t insert much commentary. They didn’t have much positive to say about the current Supreme Court, indicating that they just threw the problem at the states and washed their hands of it. All in all, I felt it was informative to get the perspective of those who practice law, or at least teach it. One of them had written an argument with a colleague, which was arguing against overturning roe v wade, and she was angry that Alito cited it in his opinion in support of overturning.

        Liked by 2 people

        • Interesting that they said 40 years. I suppose they mean “until all these conservatives are off the court.” I’m thinking that Prohibition was repealed in 13 years — that would be my guess for a timeline.


  2. Merci, d’aborder ce sujet avec du recul et de le développer avec vos paroles et connaissances d’enseignante. C’est rafraichissant.

    Voici, où cela a conduit ma réflexion.
    “Homme ou homme”?
    Dans la langue française, la majuscule confère une notion de globalité qui inclus tous les individus.
    Qui fait encore usage de cette majuscule pour marquer cette différence dans la dénomination?
    Même la “Déclaration des Droits de l’Homme et du Citoyen de 1789″ mélange les termes:
    Article 1er. Les hommes naissent et demeurent libres et égaux en droits.”

    Liked by 2 people

    • En fait, rien n’oblige à utiliser la majuscule quand on écrit ” La déclaration des droits de l’homme” (qui est l’orthographe usitée dans les textes officiels – cf. le site de l’Elysée par ex.). On comprend qu’il s’agit du deuxième sens du mot “homme” (“être humain”, pas mâle, même si je trouve ça particulièrement tiré par les cheveux et très sexiste mais c’est seulement mon avis 😉 ). Le fait de mettre une majuscule à “homme” dans ce cas n’est pas une règle à proprement parler mais une figure de style (qu’on appelle : antonomase d’un nom commun – le fait d’utiliser un nom commun comme un nom propre – l’homme — l’Homme — de même : dieu et Dieu.)

      Liked by 1 person

    • Although even at the time, Olympe de Gouges (sp?) felt obligated to write a “Declaration of the Rights of Woman and of the Citizen” (nothing like that happened in the US.


  3. Oui merci adadaghast, cette nuance est possible entre majuscule et minuscule dans la langue de Molière, après tout dépend de l’oreille ou l’oeil attentif qui l’entend ou le lit.., il n’est pire sourd que celui qui ne veut pas entendre 😉 mais en tout cas le temps de la réflexion est salvateur j’ose toujours y croire aussi. Have a nice day all RA fans.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I always think we wouldn’t have all these issues over Bible translation if people understood things as most of us think they are to be understood. Some people just don’t want to “hear” it.


      • J’éprouve toujours beaucoup de frustrations à ne pas pouvoir avoir même un minimum d’écoute, sinon de dialogue avec les personnes qui ont des aprioris.


  4. That pea salad looks delicious. I hope you had a great time with Obscura!
    On the embargo on political discussion with family and co-workers: I so feel you sigh
    It makes me sad and mad that not talking is the solution but I too know no other way atm.


    • Thanks — it was and we had a very relaxed evening with her family.

      HL published a long social media post today about the shooting in Chicago on July 4th (and many of our family and friends posted in agreement with him). I was really troubled but I knew there was no point in saying anything. He, and other people, already know how I feel anyway.


  5. Glad you had a good 4th celebration… and the pea salad does look good! I’ve found lately that all the bad news is just too much. And I’m not sure where Canada is going to go in the next election, although I think we still have a while as long as Trudeau keeps the NDP on his side.


    • Yes. I had backed way off after January (when it gave me an actual panic attack) and I find that one advantage of full time work is that I can’t watch events in real time.

      I don’t think anything much will happen in the US legislatively. The GOP was headed for a clear win until this Supreme Court ruling, but I don’t know if even that will really move the scales in the other direction. The liberals who are one issue voters here tend to be on the far left of the spectrum anyway.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. This is a great elegant and lateral take on women’s rights. And now the term ‘man’ can be further elasticated by gender.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. The political divide feels wider than I’ve ever felt it to be in my lifetime and that’s scary…


    • I catch myself having that kind of thought, too. I’ve become less willing over the last ten years to embrace any compromise on my part, either.

      Liked by 1 person

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