“WE HOLD THESE truths to be sacred and undeniable,” Thomas Jefferson wrote in his first draft of the Declaration of Independence (the composition of which was regarded as something of a minor administrative chore, as noted by the historian Joseph Ellis). He showed the draft to John Adams and Benjamin Franklin, who suggested “self-evident” instead — perhaps a polite way of saying to the British crown: “as any fool can plainly see.” Although Jefferson (uncharacteristically) accepted the change without complaint, the “truths” that all men are created equal and endowed with certain unalienable rights were not self-evident to everyone, even in the American colonies, where a sizable part of the population was loyal to Great Britain and a great many more simply wanted the revolutionary turmoil to end so things could get back to normal.
The obvious contradiction of the Declaration’s fine sentiments — the institution of slavery — had to be swept under the rug in 1776 lest southerners withdraw from the fragile and sometimes fractious coalition that was forming behind the idea of independence. “Nevertheless,” writes Mr. Ellis, “what Jefferson had done, albeit inadvertently, was to smuggle the radical implications of the American Revolution into the founding document, planting the seeds that would grow into the expanding liberal mandate for individual rights that eventually . . . ended slavery, made women’s suffrage inevitable, and sanctioned the civil rights of all racial minorities.” And some other minorities as well, we could add.