Franklin, Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence offer a good study of words

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As a good editor, Benjamin Franklin understood words, he understood the language and he understood the priorities of America.

In his biography of Ben Franklin, Walter Isaacson tells this story of Franklin’s influence in the writing of the Declaration of Independence.

Upon completing his rough draft of the Declaration, Thomas Jefferson sent the draft to Franklin with this note:

“Will Dr. Franklin be so good as to peruse it and suggest such alterations his more enlarged view of the subject will dictate?”

Isaacson noted that people were much more polite to editors back then.

He said Franklin made only a few changes, emphasizing that they “were small but resounding.”

As a case in point, Franklin changed Jefferson’s phrasing from “we hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable” to “we hold these truths to be self-evident.”

Isaacson emphasized that the idea of “self-evident truths was one that drew less on John Locke, who was Jefferson’s favored philosopher,” and more “on the scientific determinism espoused by Sir Isaac Newton and on the analytic empiricism of Franklin’s close friend David Hume.”

Isaacson wrote: “In what became known as Hume’s fork, the great Scottish philosopher …  and others had developed a theory that distinguished between synthetic truths that describe matters of fact (such as London is bigger than Philadelphia) and analytic truths that are self-evident describe matters of fact (such as the angles of a triangle equal 180 degrees; all bachelors are unmarried).”

“By using the word ‘sacred,’ Isaacson wrote, “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.”

Isaacson said Franklin’s editing turned it instead into an assertion of rationality. (Here in 2012, it is significant that the subtle priorities in our language strengthen “rationality” instead of “religion.”)

Do you see the strength and the beauty of the words?

Later on when Congress formed itself into a committee of the whole to consider Jefferson’s draft, Isaacson wrote that “they were not so light in their editing as Franklin had been. Large sections were eviscerated, most notably the one that criticized the king for perpetuating the slave trade.

Isaacson emphasized that Congress, also to its credit, cut more than half the draft’s final five paragraphs, in which Jefferson had begun to ramble in a way that detracted from the document’s power.”

This makes a good “study of words.”

Gillis Morgan is an associate professor emeritus of journalism at Auburn University and an award-winning columnist. He can be reached at morgang7@aol.com

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