Thursday, July 3, 2014

Zach Hutchins on the Origins of the Declaration of Independence

Some of the readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home will remember the Author's Corner interview we did with Zach Hutchins on his new book Inventing Eden: Primitivism, Millennialism, and the Making of New England. I know that many of you have put his book on your reading list as a result of the interview

This week Zach has written a piece called "The Genesis of the Declaration of Independence" at The Christian Century's "Then & Now" column edited by San Diego State's Ed Blum and Duke's Kate Bowler.  Here is a taste:

Fireworks this Friday will celebrate the signing of the Declaration of Independence almost 250 years ago. The founders’ assurance “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights; that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness” was authorized by “the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God.” But the meaning of that phrase has been the subject of heated debate for some time. For example, John Fea suggests that the document’s primary purpose was to “announce the birth of the United States to the world” and that phrases such as “endowed by their Creator” were not originally understood to mean that “human rights came from God.”
But the concept of natural law and phrases such as “Nature’s God” had been used to signal a theistic understanding of government for centuries before Thomas Jefferson put pen to paper. 
You can read the rest here.
If I am reading Zach's column correctly, he is using my supposed argument in Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? to set up his column.  He implies (again I hope I am reading this correctly) that I represent one of the scholars in the "heated debate" over the God-phrases in the Declaration who argues that Jefferson, by using the phrase "endowed by their Creator," did not mean to suggest that "human rights came from God."  He then shows how an understanding of the founders' use of the Bible and natural rights proves that Jefferson and company (it was actually Ben Franklin who added this phrase) did indeed believe that rights came from God.
Overall, Zach has written a very useful and accurate column.  I appreciate his thoughts and it is a very fitting piece for the holiday season.
Yet I am not sure I should be used as a foil here.  Nowhere in Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? do I argue or even suggest that Jefferson did not believe that human rights came from God.  In fact, on page 132 I write: 
Actually, the reference to self-evident truths being 'endowed by their Creator' was not part of Jefferson's original draft of the Declaration.  It was added later by Benjamin Franklin, a member of the writing committee.  Jefferson's original wording was: 'that from that equal creation they derive their rights inherent and inalienable.'  Franklin's change to the text makes clear that he and the Continental Congress wanted to affirm the belief that the unalienable rights of 'Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness' found their origin in God.
Zach does represent me correctly when he says that I believe that the Declaration was written primarily to "announce the birth of the United States to the world."  In making this argument, I wanted to draw attention away from the notion that the God-language in the Declaration was somehow the primary reason that Jefferson and his committee wrote it.  This is a mistake made by the writers from the Christian Right who dabble in the American past.
As Zach shows in his column, the idea that rights come from God was an old English idea that almost everyone in the eighteenth-century Atlantic World would have embraced. I make this point several times in Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? and even go so far as to say that the Declaration, for the reasons that Zach suggests, is a "theistic" document (p.133)  
In the end, I was  trying to counter the Whig reading of the Declaration in which the first two paragraphs are interpreted in the context of American exceptionalism.  In other words, the references to "Nature's God" and "Creator" were not unique to the American founding.
Just a clarification...  Happy Independence Day!