by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
Why does the Declaration of Independence proclaim “We hold these truths to be self-evident” instead of simply stating that “We believe it is true”?
This is actually a good question. Answering it can teach us a lot about the Founding.
When we recall what the world was like in the Founders’ time, the answer becomes clear. The world in those days operated on the basis of utter inequality. Whether the ruler was a king who claimed to rule by divine right or an emperor who claimed the mandate of Heaven, society was essentially the same everywhere, consisting of monarchs and their subjects, rulers and the ruled. This was simply accepted as the way of things.
The Declaration offered the world a new vision. The Founders did not limit themselves to declaring that Americans no longer wanted or needed a king to rule over them. That alone would have been a radical challenge to monarchs everywhere. The Founders went much, much further. They did not merely claim they believed all men, all people, are created equal; they claimed it is self-evidently true that all are created equal. They declared the truth of equality in a world that believed in inequality. America was not simply choosing to opt out of the belief system that sustained monarchs everywhere; the Founders were declaring that the world-system was based on a false belief.
Make no mistake, the Founders understood America’s significance for all humankind. …
… At the time of the Founding, people everywhere were operating according to the belief that God had put saddles on their backs and rulers in the saddle. Jefferson declared the beginning of the end of the hereditary monarch propped up by an official state religion.
The Declaration’s statement that “We hold these truths to be self-evident” goes to the heart of the teaching mission of the Founders.