According to Wikipedia, Benjamin Franklin was “an American polymath active as a writer, scientist, inventor, statesman, diplomat, printer, publisher and political philosopher.” One of the leading intellectuals of his time, the article continues, Franklin is known for “the lightning rod, bifocals, and the Franklin stove, among other inventions.” And, of course, for his important contributions to 1970s Saturday morning television:
So Ben was kind of a big deal.
But for my money, nothing in that long list of achievements comes close to topping his stint as an editor on the Declaration of Independence. Here’s how biographer Walter Isaacson put it in Benjamin Franklin: An American Life:
Franklin made only a few changes, some of which can be viewed written in his own hand on what Jefferson referred to as the “rough draft” of the Declaration. (This remarkable document is at the Library of Congress and on its Web site.) The most important of his edits was small but resounding. He crossed out, using the heavy backslashes that he often employed, the last three words of Jefferson’s phrase “We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable” and changed them to the words now enshrined in history: “We hold these truths to be self-evident.”
The idea of “self-evident” truths was one that drew less on John Locke, who was Jefferson’s favored philosopher, than on the scientific determinism espoused by Isaac Newton and on the analytic empiricism of Franklin’s close friend David Hume. In what became known as “Hume’s fork,” the great Scottish philosopher, along with Leibniz 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 by virtue of reason and definition (“The angles of a triangle equal 180 degrees”; “All bachelors are unmarried”). By using the word “sacred,” 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. Franklin’s edit turned it instead into an assertion of rationality.
Keeping with our patriotic theme, historian Ronald C. White, Jr. tells us how Lincoln tweaked the final sentence of his First Inaugural Address—a sentence that has since “found its place as American scripture.”
It is an address that has sometimes been overlooked alongside its more well-known cousins, the Gettysburg and the Second Inaugural. But the president, with less than one year of formal education, offered timeless words that can help us as we seek to define the meaning of America for our day.
Just goes to show that, as White reminds us, “there is no such thing as good writing; there is only good rewriting.”