The Appeal to Self-Evidence

“WE HOLD these truths to be self-evident,” the second sentence of the Declaration of Independence proclaims. In deriving the essential social truths from their “self-evidence”—rather than from their being “sacred & undeniable” as the original draft had read—the Declaration was building on distinctly American ground.

The roots of the appeal to self-evidence were described by the Rev. Hugh Jones as early as 1724 in his character of the Virginians:

Thus they have good natural Notions, and will soon learn Arts and Sciences; but are generally diverted by Business or Inclination from profound Study, and prying into the Depth of Things; being ripe for Management of their Affairs, before they have laid so good a Foundation of Learning, and had such Instructions, and acquired such Accomplishments, as might be instilled into such good natural Capacities. Nevertheless thro’ their quick Apprehension, they have a Sufficiency of Knowledge, and Fluency of Tongue, tho’ their Learning for the most Part be but superficial.

They are more inclinable to read Men by Business and Conversation, than to dive into Books, and are for the most Part only desirous of learning what is absolutely necessary, in the shortest and best Method.

The matured statement of this point of view is found in Franklin and Jefferson, the most eloquent spokesmen of an American and anti-aristocratic way of thinking about thinking. On more than one occasion Franklin refused to engage in learned controversy. “Disputes,” he retorted to European critics of his ideas on electricity, “are apt to sour one’s temper, and disturb one’s quiet.” If his observations were correct, he said, they would readily be confirmed by other men’s experience; if not, they ought to be rejected. He expressed the gist of his belief in self-evidence to an English correspondent in his 1786 report on American progress in government. “We are, I think, in the right Road of Improvement, for we are making Experiments. I do not oppose all that seem wrong, for the Multitude are more effectually set right by Experience, than kept from going wrong by Reasoning with them.” This is much the same as Jefferson’s notion (in his draft preamble to the Virginia Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom) “that the opinions and belief of men depend not on their own will, but follow involuntarily the evidence proposed to their minds.”

The founders of European liberal thought declared that in any public battle between truth and error, truth would eventually prevail. Theirs was only another declaration of faith in philosophers, in the magical ability of enlightened and profound minds to grasp the truths of contending systems, in the philosophers’ capacity to devise systems corresponding to the actual shapes and laws of nature. Theirs was simply another aristocratic faith, but now the aristocracy were philosophers and scientists. Progress was identified with what Sir Francis Bacon called “The Advancement of Learning”: the talented and privileged few played the leading role. The classic French statement, the Marquis de Condorcet’s Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind (1795), made the deepest philosophers—Descartes, Newton, and Leibnitz—the heroes in the battle to liberate the human mind. Their improved metaphysics had enabled men to break out of the political and religious prisons built by centuries of kings and priests. This was the work of “men of genius, the eternal benefactors of the human race.”

Such an explanation was alien to America. Even John Adams, who thought human inequality was the wellspring of history, was outraged. “What a pity,” Adams exclaimed in irony, “that this man of genius cannot be king and priest for the whole human race!” And Adams added in 1811:

The philosophers of France were too rash and hasty. They were as artful as selfish and as hypocritical as the priests and politicians of Babylon, Persia, Egypt, India, Greece, Rome, Turkey, Germany, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, France, Spain, Italy or England. They understood not what they were about. They miscalculated their forces and resources: and were consequently overwhelmed in destruction with all their theories.

The precipitation and temerity of philosophers has, I fear, retarded the progress of improvement and amelioration in the condition of mankind for at least an hundred years.

The public mind was improving in knowledge and the public heart in humanity, equity, and benevolence; the fragments of feudality, the inquisition, the rack, the cruelty of punishments, Negro slavery were giving way, etc. But the philosophers must arrive at perfection per saltum. Ten times more furious than Jack in the Tale of a Tub, they rent and tore the whole garment to pieces and left not one whole thread in it. They have been compelled to resort to Napoleon, and Gibbon himself became an advocate for the Inquisition. What an amiable and glorious Equality, Fraternity, and Liberty they have now established in Europe!

Adams’ distrust of the ruthless demands of genius and his preference for the slower, more sober advances of the public mind expressed a deep current in American feeling: the difference between Washington and Napoleon; between Roosevelt, Truman, and Eisenhower on the one hand and garret-spawned European illuminati like Lenin, Mussolini, and Hitler.

In America what would liberate men was not the opportunity to combat ancient and erroneous philosophic systems by modern ones, but the opportunity to bring all philosophy into the skeptical and earthy arena of daily life. No philosophy would be too sacred for such a test. Americans saw less value in the full-dress intellectual tournaments of learned academies, in the passionate arguments of artists and prophets on the Left Banks of the world, than in the free competition of the marketplace. Such competition was hardly yet known to Europe, and it might never be known there in its crude American form. When Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote in 1919 that “the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market,” he was not appealing from the individual philosopher to the guild of philosophers. Rather he was appealing from professional thinkers to the bulk of Americans.

In the 18th century, if not earlier, American experience had already begun to give this flavor to our thinking. “If what is thus published be good,” Franklin wrote in the Pennsylvania Gazette on July 24, 1740 defending the freedom of printers, “Mankind has the Benefit of it: If it be bad … the more ’tis made publick, the more its Weakness is expos’d and the greater Disgrace falls upon the author, whoever he be.” So too, Jefferson in urging freedom of speech, press, and religion, argued less from the desirability that every mind be enlightened by modern philosophers than from the desirability of allowing each mind its free and direct response to its unique experience. “Your own reason is the only oracle given you by heaven,” advised Jefferson “and you are answerable, not for the Tightness, but uprightness of the decision.” The basic American questions were to be settled in the arena of experience rather than of controversy or of learning. The straight short path by which Americans arrived at their conclusions can be illustrated by their idea of progress.

By the 18th century many European thinkers had arrived at the idea of progress by devious and painful intellectual paths. There was the speculative philosophical path explored by Francis Bacon and Descartes; there was the speculative historical path explored by Fontenelle, Condorcet, and Gibbon. Some thinkers argued from the essential character of man or the laws of nature; others extended their historical vision back to the Romans, to Socrates, or even to primitive tribes. Some dissected man, society, and the universe to find the elements of inevitable progress; others took their bearings from distant points in time to trace their lines to the present and into the future.

All these were the reflections of learned men. In England progress seemed the slow and undramatic product of a long relatively peaceful past. In France progress seemed a hope which could be fully justified only by the future. But in America one needed to be neither historian nor prophet: progress seemed confirmed by daily experience.

From the beginning, people in provincial America noted that in the New World progress was self-evident. “Let them produce any colonie or commonwealth in the world,” we have heard the magistrates of Massachusetts Bay reply to the Child petitioners (1646), “where more hath beene done in 16 yeares.” When, about a century later, Burnaby visited Philadelphia, he exclaimed that where only eighty years before had been a “wild and uncultivated desert, inhabited by nothing but ravenous beasts, and a savage people,” there was now a flourishing city. “Can the mind have a greater pleasure than in contemplating the rise and progress of cities and kingdoms? Than in perceiving a rich and opulent state arising out of a small settlement or colony? This pleasure everyone must feel who considers Pennsylvania.” American history could be summarized in the phrase which appeared on more than one tide page: “The Progressive Improvements … of the British Settlements in North America.”

The American situation made it natural to identify progress with growth and expansion. The very survival and vitality of the American colonies was itself a proof of progress. Franklin drew his conclusions about progress in America from what anybody could notice: a growing population in the continental American emptiness. There could be no greater mistake, Franklin explained in his Observations concerning the Increase of Mankind, Peopling of Countries, etc. (1755), than to generalize about the growth of population from the experience of the Old World: “nor will Tables form’d on Observations made on full-settled old Countries, as Europe, suit new Countries, as America.” It would be futile to try to restrict American manufactures or to seek to confine the American population. “For People increase in Proportion to the Number of Marriages, and that is greater in Proportion to the Ease and Convenience of supporting a Family. When families can be easily supported, more Persons marry, and earlier in Life.” Plentiful land and the ease of getting on in America would induce people to marry early and to have more children: here the population would surely double every twenty years. “But notwithstanding this Increase, so vast is the Territory of North America, that it will require many Ages to settle it fully; and, till it is fully settled, Labour will never be cheap here, where no Man continues long a Labourer for others, but gets a Plantation of his own, no Man continues long a Journeyman to a Trade, but goes among those new Settlers, and sets up for himself, &c. Hence Labour is no cheaper now in Pennsylvania, than it was 30 Years ago, tho’ so many Thousand labouring People have been imported.” While the high cost of labor here would prevent the colonies from competing with the mother country in manufactures, their increasing population would yearly enlarge the American market for British goods.

There is, in short, no Bound to the prolific Nature of Plants or Animals, but what is made by their crowding and interfering with each other’s means of Subsistence…. Thus there are suppos’d to be now upwards of One Million English Souls in North-America, (tho’ ’tis thought scarce 80,000 have been brought over Sea,) and yet perhaps there is not one the fewer in Britain, but rather many more, on Account of the Employment the Colonies afford to Manufacturers at Home. This Million doubling, suppose but once in 25 Years, will, in another Century, be more than the People of England, and the greatest Number of Englishmen will be on this Side of the Water. What an Accession of Power to the British Empire by Sea as well as Land! What Increase of Trade and Navigation! What Numbers of Ships and Seamen!

Franklin saw that already American facts were destroying European theories. For example, the theory of “mercantilism” by which England and her rivals justified their contest for empire had been shaped by the facts of a crowded Europe. Behind mercantilism lay the assumption that the wealth of the world was a pie and that a bigger slice for one country meant a smaller slice for all the others. In the ever-expanding New World, all this seemed doctrinaire. Why should America follow the pattern of Europe? Why should an increase of people here menace the wealth of England? On the contrary, as Franklin observed, to enlarge the American colonies would decrease the probable competition from American manufactures while increasing the market for English products.

Manufactures are founded in poverty. It is the multitude of poor without land in a country, and who must work for others at low wages or starve, that enables undertakers to carry on a manufacture, and afford it cheap enough to prevent the importation of the same kind from abroad, and to bear the expence of its own exportation.

But no man who can have a piece of land of his own, sufficient by his labour to subsist his family in plenty, is poor enough to be a manufacturer, and work for a master. Hence while there is land enough in America for our people, there can never be manufactures to any amount or value. It is a striking observation of a very able pen, that the natural livelyhood of the thin inhabitants of a forest country is hunting; that of a greater number, pasturage; that of a middling population, agriculture; and that of the greatest, manufactures; which last must subsist the bulk of the people in a full country, or they must be subsisted by charity, or perish. The extended population, therefore, that is most advantageous to Great Britain, will be best effected, because only effectually secured by the possession of Canada.

In his Interest of Great Britain considered with regard to her Colonies and the acquisitions of Canada and Guadaloupe (with the collaboration of Richard Jackson, 1760), Franklin applied this reasoning to British policy in North America after her victory over the French. The question then being debated in pamphlets and on the floor of Parliament was whether the British should drive the French from North America by annexing Canada or should instead take the sugar island of Guadeloupe. Orthodox mercantilists argued that the frigid, unsettled wilderness of Canada, adding a long boundary to be protected while yielding only a scanty fur-trade, would become a heavy burden on Mother-England; and that to remove the French from North America would dangerously increase the independence of the Americans. But Franklin saw the question differently; according to him, growth, expansion, and multiplication were the law of American life. All ancient analogies between the human body and the body politic were faulty because there were actually no natural limits on the growth of a body politic. The American market, by consuming English manufactures, would provide more employment for English labor, and would eventually increase tenfold the population of the mother-island. The influence of Franklin’s pamphlet is hard to measure, especially since a number of powerful Englishmen (including the great Pitt himself) already shared his views, but the British did acquire Canada and not Guadeloupe by the Peace of Paris in 1763, and so they removed the French menace from the continental American colonies.

This way of thinking had actually provided fresh American arguments for expansion of the Empire. It also expressed a novel and naïve approach to the idea of progress itself. The 18th-century expansion of the American colonies might not have carried so forceful a lesson had not Franklin and others prepared Americans in a way of naiveté, in a readiness to argue from what seemed self-evident.

The same could be said for other American ideas of the provincial age which at first sight looked like the conclusions of the European “Enlightenment” philosophers. After a second look these American doctrines often prove to be “self-evident” conclusions from the facts of American life. For example, the versatile interests of a French philosophe expressed his belief in the sovereign unity of reason and his encyclopedic interests affirmed a theoretic “rationalism.” But the versatility of a Virginia planter owed more to the actual diversity of his responsibilities—for the government, crops, medicine, religion, and everything else in his little plantation world. Again, while in France the essential equality of mankind had to be laboriously demonstrated by research and speculation (for example in Rousseau’s “Essay on the Origin of Inequality”), in America the idea of equality had a self-evident meaning all its own. Of course, American facts would also limit American ideals; where the “facts of life” in America seemed to deny equality (as in the case of the Negro or the Indian), many good Americans felt strong doubts.

From the beginning, Americans formed a habit of accepting for the most part only those ideas which seemed already to have proved themselves in experience. They used things as they were as a measure of how things ought to be; in America the “is” became the yardstick of the “ought.” Was not the New World a living denial of the old sharp distinction between the world as it was and the world as it might be or ought to be?

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