When the Declaration of Independence was first printed, distributed and read in the American colonies and beyond in July 1776, there was considerable interest in and confusion about the identity of its author.
Abigail Adams, having been sent a copy handwritten by her husband, John, assumed him to be the primary scribbler. Many others surmised the same, Adams having been such a driving force behind the idea of breaking from Great Britain in the first place.
Details of that pivotal summer were kept tightly under wraps in the early days of the declaration’s publication, due in no small part to King George III having declared its signatories traitors who would be hanged by the dawn’s early light.
Today, with a trove of primary documents from which to draw, we probably know as much about what happened in Philadelphia 237 years ago as we ever will. Even so, the matter of authorship of the American republic’s most sacred founding document is by no means a settled question.
The short, “official” answer—the one that pops up on the U.S. citizenship test—is that Thomas Jefferson is the true author. The slightly longer, more nuanced narrative—Jefferson wrote the original draft, which was then fine-tuned by Adams and Benjamin Franklin and subsequently edited to within an inch of its life by the rest of the Continental Congress—is more accurate still.
But this does not take into account the many men who inspired Jefferson’s most famous tropes—not least the assertion that “all men are created equal” and entitled to “certain inalienable rights” such as “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” The former phrase appeared in similar forms in Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan and the Virginia Declaration of Rights, while the latter originated with John Locke.
In a way, this is all mere trivia. Fun things to know, but also completely beside the point.
The ideas in these crucial government papers have persevered down the centuries because they are great ideas—not because they were written by great men—and ought to be regarded as if they were written by no one in particular, not least because, as demonstrated above, they are largely adaptations of previously published works.
This is a difference in emphasis that is narrow but deep, for it underlines several key principles involved in our nation’s founding, which we are rightly celebrating on this Fourth of July.
The first of these conventions is that no person is any better than any other. While it is empirically, practically false to say we all are “created equal”—Jefferson can rightly and objectively be called a better writer than, say, Brad Paisley—we are duty-bound to act as if we were, which includes entertaining the prospect of a great idea coming from an otherwise dumb person, and vice versa.
Ringo Starr has noted that the Fab Four’s modus operandi in creating the Sgt. Pepper album in 1967 was that “whoever had the best idea—it didn’t matter who—that was the one we’d use.” Might it not be a coincidence that such a record, conceived in such a way, would later be proclaimed by Rolling Stone as the greatest of all time?
More important still is the verity implied in the title of Christopher Hitchens’ 2005 biography of Jefferson, Author of America. The United States is unique, Hitchens argued, because it is a “written country,” not merely conceived and spelled out by codified documents, but also operated, on a daily basis, by them.
This is why the whereabouts of Edward Snowden are not as important as the information he disclosed, and why the identities of the Supreme Court justices who ruled the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional are not as important as the arguments they made.
By design, the American system is prepared to withstand any and all people who blunder their way through it, regardless of rank, color, creed or any other consideration. Included in the “all men are created equal” proposition is the fact that everyone must follow the same rules, and that the penalties for violating such rules are known in advance and are the same for all violators. When these assumptions are occasionally violated—well, the Constitution has a correction for that, too.
What is key is that our most treasured principles exist as if they were not conceived by people—none in particular, at least—and were rather preexisting. They were here before we appeared on the scene, and will remain once we are gone.
As far as the United States is concerned, these are truths that are, shall we say, self-evident.