Self-Evident Truth: Equality and Rights in the Declaration
When American Founder Benjamin Franklin edited Thomas Jefferson’s rough draft of the United States’ Declaration of Independence, he changed the wording of one important phrase from “We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable” to “We hold these truths to be self-evident.” The notion of “self-evident” truth is the idea that some truths do not require complex reasoning or evidence to prove. Such truths are simply understood by basic, original evidence and man’s innate moral or common sense. They are often called “first principles” upon which other truths and arguments are based. The Declaration of Independence of 1776 conveys the principle of self-evident truth in stating, “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 principle contributes to the American understanding of and justification for the equality and natural rights of mankind. While self-evident truth may hold value from a purely secular, scientific and rational standpoint, many early God-oriented thinkers also found it to be compatible with biblical, Christian teaching. Franklin knew this.
The support for self-evident truth is found among Christian thinkers throughout history. Augustine of Hippo in the 400s, John of Damascus in the 700s, Thomas Aquinas in the 1200s, and John Calvin and Richard Hooker of the 1500s all expressed ideas related to self-evident truth. The concept was later supported by God-oriented Enlightenment-era thinkers including John Locke and, ultimately, by the American Founders.
In his 1265-1274 Summa Theologica, Italian theologian Thomas Aquinas acknowledged that some truths are “naturally implanted” in human beings and are therefore self-evident. Such truths, he believed, include the existence of God and God’s natural, moral law. Drawing from John of Damascus in Orthodox Faith, Aquinas writes, for instance, about the self-evident existence of God: “These things are said to be self-evident to us, the knowledge of which is naturally implanted in us, as we can see in regard to first principles. [Saint John] the Damascene says that the knowledge of God is naturally implanted in all. Therefore, the existence of God is self-evident.” Aquinas further asserted that the two Great Commandments in the Bible to love God and others, as found in Matthew 22, are also self-evident to mankind. These principles of God’s universal moral law, he writes, “need no further promulgation after being once imprinted on the natural reason to which they are self-evident; as, for instance, that one should do evil to no man.”
French religious reformer John Calvin expounded on the existence of God based on self-evident truth in his 1536 Institutes of the Christian Religion, writing about “the knowledge of God naturally implanted in the human mind.” For one, he draws from Romans 1:18-20 in which the Apostle Paul writes about the evidence of God in creation: …
The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people who suppress the truth…, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world, God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse. (NIV)
Calvin consequently affirms that “the knowledge of God being manifested to all” means every person is “without excuse.” In addition, Calvin asserts that the knowledge of God is self-evidently manifested through a person’s inward moral sense or conscience. Alluding to Romans 2:15 in which the Apostle Paul says that God’s moral law is written on human hearts, Calvin explains, …
That there exists in the human mind, and indeed by natural instinct, some sense of Deity, we hold to be beyond dispute, since God Himself, to prevent any man from pretending ignorance, has endued all men with some idea of His Godhead, the memory of which He constantly renews and occasionally enlarges, that all to a man being aware that there is a God, and that He is their Maker, may be condemned by their own conscience when they neither worship Him nor consecrate their lives to His service. … There is no nation so barbarous, no race so brutish, as not to be imbued with the conviction that there is a God. …so thoroughly has this common conviction possessed the mind, so firmly is it stamped on the breasts of all men. Since, then, there never has been, from the very first, any quarter of the globe, any city, any household even, without religion, this amounts to a tacit confession, that a sense of Deity is inscribed on every heart.
English theologian Richard Hooker, influenced by Augustine and Aquinas, also acknowledged self-evident truth. He explains in his 1594-1597 Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity that “to make nothing evident of itself to man’s understanding were to take away all possibility of knowing anything.” Hooker believed, for example, that a universal moral law or Law of Nature among humanity is self-evident. He pointed out from Augustine that some truths are “universally agreed upon” and that from these truths the “greatest moral duties we owe towards God or man may without any great difficulty be concluded.”
British philosopher John Locke, influenced by Hooker, recognized self-evident truths that do not require complex reasoning to understand. He asserts in his 1690 Essay Concerning Human Understanding, “There are a sort of propositions, which under the name of maxims or axioms, have passed for principles of science; and because they are self-evident, have been supposed innate.” Locke affirmed the existence of a Creator God as self-evident based on natural creation. Citing Romans 1:20, he expresses, “I judge it as certain and clear a truth, as can anywhere be delivered, that ‘the invisible things of God are clearly seen from the creation of the world, being understood by the things that are made.’”
Just as Benjamin Franklin, American Founder James Wilson similarly recognized self-evident truths, calling them common sense and first principles. Echoing Hooker and Locke, Wilson expounds on this idea in his 1790-1791 Lectures on Law (Vol. 1): …
Let us embrace the philosophy which dwells with common sense. This philosophy will teach us that first principles are in themselves apparent; that to make nothing self-evident is to take away all possibility of knowing anything; that without first principles, there can be neither reason nor reasoning; that all sound reasoning must rest ultimately on the principles of common sense—principles supported by original and intuitive evidence.
With their inclusion of the principle of self-evident truth in the Declaration of Independence, the American Founders affirmed mankind’s creation by God and moral, common sense. While this principle may at times be identified within secular science and reason, it is also strongly supported by the Bible. In fact, this principle was historically acknowledged by Christian thinkers—with Romans 1 to support the existence of God through creation and with Romans 2 to support man’s moral sense. It stands to reason that if God exists as creation evidences, and mankind is made in God’s image as the Bible and man’s conscience confirm, then all human beings possess dignity, equality, and God-given rights. It is from this philosophy and simple line of reasoning that the Founders asserted some basic moral truths in the Declaration, that all human beings are “created equal” and that their Creator bestows on them the rights to “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” The Founders knew that without these first principles or self-evident truths, the arguments and defense for man’s equality, rights, and freedoms would ring hollow.
Contributed by AHEF and Angela E. Kamrath.
Sources for more information:
Kamrath, Angela E. The Miracle of America: The Influence of the Bible on the Founding History and Principles of the United States of America for a People of Every Belief. Second Edition. Houston, TX: American Heritage Education Foundation, 2014, 2015.
Calvin, John. The Institutes of the Christian Religion: A New Translation. Vol. 1, Book 1, Ch. 3. Translated by Henry Beveridge. Edinburgh, Scotland: Printed for Calvin Translation Society, 1845. pp. 55-56. Google Books.
1. The Principle of Popular Sovereignty
2. The Puritans’ Moral Authority was the Bible
3. Great Awakening Principle: All Men Equal Before God
4. Great Awakening Principle: The Judeo-Christian Law of Love
5. Great Awakening Principle: The Dignity of the Human Being
6. How the Great Awakening Impacted American Unity, Democracy, Freedom & Revolution
7. The American Revolution
8. American Revolution Debate: The American Quest for a New, Bible-Inspired Republic
9. Thomas Paine’s Common Sense: God’s Opposition to Absolute Rule
10. The Bible was the Most Cited Source of the American Founding Era
11. Freedom: The Most Important Characteristic of America
12. The American Quest for Self-Government
13. The Creator God: The Basis of Authority, Law, & Rights for Mankind in the United States of America
14. The Law of Nature: The Universal Moral Law of Mankind
15. The Law of Nature in the Bible
Poster: Declaration of Independence
Activity: The Miracle of America High School Teacher Course Guide, Unit 7, Part 2, Activity 3: Unalienable Rights in the Declaration, p. 252, 318-319. MS-HS.
Unalienable Rights in the Declaration (Revised)
Purpose/Objective: Students learn key principles from the Declaration of Independence including self-evident truth, natural or unalienable rights, and how influential thinkers like Locke and Sidney as well as early Americans justified these rights and connected them with the Bible and other principles.
1) Chapter 7 of Miracle of America reference/text. Students read sections 7.1-7.17, 7.23, & pp. 236-237.
2) Essay/Handout: Principles of the Declaration of Independence by Angela E. Kamrath found in the “Supporting Resources” of the Miracle of America HS Teacher Course Guide, pp. 362-364, or in the “Miracle of America Snapshots” handout under member resources (see Miracle of America articles) at americanheritage.org.
3) Related blogs/videos (see above).
KWL Chart (Revised):
1. At the outset of the lesson, ask students to write anything they know about unalienable rights in the Declaration of Independence on a 3-column KWL Chart under the “K” column for “what I know.”
2. Students will then respond to the question, “What do you want to know about unalienable rights?” Students will write this information under the “W” column of their chart for “what I want to know.” The teacher will then lead students in a reading, analysis, and discussion of unalienable rights and the self-evident truth philosophy that justifies them in the Declaration.
3. As the lesson concludes, students will add new information they have learned under the “L” column of their chart for “what I’ve learned.”
(See KWL Chart in the “Supporting Resources” section of the Miracle of America HS Teacher Course Guide, pp. 318-319.)
To download this whole unit, sign up as an AHEF member (no cost) to access the “resources” page on americanheritage.org. To order the printed binder format of the course guide with all the units, go to the AHEF bookstore.
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