Outside View: Walter, Ben and Tom

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WASHINGTON (UPI) — Former CNN and Time, Inc., executive Walter Isaacson has been touring the talk shows promoting his well-written biography, Benjamin Franklin, An American Life, (Simon & Schuster, $30; 590 pp.).

The book is well worth reading. The trouble with it is that Isaacson, like most contemporary scribes writing for popular consumption, can’t resist putting his own modern spin on the beliefs of America’s eighteenth century founders.


In discussing his book on PBS’s Charlie Rose program, Isaacson labored to show that Franklin was a “rationalist” who did not look to God as the source of basic human rights. This is a warm and fuzzy way of implying that Franklin, who history records as frequently contributing to churches, was really just a kissing cousin to the secularists of our own time who are very uncomfortable with the idea of any higher law that might supercede the trendy whims of five befuddled United States Supreme Court justices.

Of course Isaacson is entitled to his opinions. But watch out. Anyone who selectively edits one of the most famous passages in all of American history in order to score a transient point for secularism is a writer who bears much closer scrutiny from the intellectual honesty police. Rose and Isaacson got along famously — the host helpfully suggested that the author has done us all a favor by showing Franklin’s rationalist side.

Warming to the topic, Isaacson enthusiastically related an anecdote about Franklin’s “co-authorship” of the Declaration of Independence, something of an editorial distortion at the outside. While Franklin, history again records, offered helpful suggestions and revisions, it was Thomas Jefferson who authored one of the great documents of human history.

In Isaacson’s view it is very revealing that Franklin weighed in on the line of the preamble that Jefferson began in his draft as, “we hold these truths to be sacred.” According to this latest biographer, Franklin persuaded Jefferson to strike the word “sacred” in favor of the words “self-evident,” as if such a substitution were proof positive that the rights of man come from something called “nature” or “mankind” rather than a Supreme Being.

Isaacson’s analysis neglects to account for the possibility that Jefferson might have agreed to the change because he thought the truths were both self-evident and sacred? Always beware of anyone who stops quoting a famous passage in the middle of a sentence.

What follows immediately after “self-evident”? Here’s the whole passage: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.”

For those of you who are text fanatics as I am, I offer the following trade. I will concede that the word is rendered as “unalienable” in the first printed copy of the Declaration supervised by John Adams if you will concede that the word is rendered as “inalienable” in the parchment copy on display at the Archives Building in Washington, DC. Fair enough?

Now, why would Isaacson stop just short of the word “Creator”? Could it be that such a concept implies a higher authority than the government itself? To make such a concession is awkward for secularists who may prefer to see the founders as unencumbered by respect for a natural law higher than government.

The next passage is a poke in the nose of Monarchs and their pretentious claims of a Divine right to rule. But it is not a refutation of the idea of a Divinity. “That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” The consent of the creatures of God was necessary to legitimize the new government because the old one had become “destructive of these ends.”

Lastly, there is one more passage in the Declaration of Independence that will be inconvenient for Isaacson, Rose and those who wish to place add Franklin and Jefferson unerringly in the rationalist camp: “And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.”

How “sacred” honor slipped past Franklin’s sharp editing eye — why not “self-evident honor” — is not explained.

I have no way of knowing if Franklin’s conception of God equated to that of millions of churchgoers, then and now. He may have believed that “reason” and “nature” were, in his worldview, sufficient manifestations of God. Maybe he thought his own intellect was all the divine Providence he needed to rely on. He certainly had no shortage of ego that might buttress that approach. Maybe he was just plain wrong and his intellectual perception outside the physical sciences was not all that it was cracked up to be.

Whatever the case, it is an enormous stretch of the imagination to imply that if Franklin did not believe in a higher law beyond the fallible codes of mankind itself, he therefore represented views that were shared by a majority of the founders.

The plain language of the Declaration and common sense tells us most of the founders did believe in the higher law of God and hoped that the new government would serve His purposes on Earth. Such respect for a higher source of law by no means portends a rigid theocracy. Rather, that authentic respect helps a truly pluralistic and tolerant government, rooted in charity and good will, to ensure that inalienable rights are protected over centuries from the proliferating follies of merely human judiciaries.

”’Mark Q. Rhoads is a former Illinois state senator and a former editorial writer for the Chicago Sun-Times.”’

”'”Outside View” commentaries are written for UPI by outside writers who specialize in a variety of important global issues.”’