One of the common reactions of the British to the American Declaration of Independence was astonishment at the claim of self-evidence. “We hold these truths to be self-evident” is certainly a bold way to begin. It is also a beginning that could hardly go unchallenged.
One of the more interesting arguments against the self-evidence claim can be found in the sermons of George Campbell. Campbell first came to the general public eye with A Dissertation in Miracles, which was widely seen as completely refuting Hume’s arguments for skepticism about miracles, at least until people stopped reading it. His major life’s work was the translation of the Gospels from the Greek, but the work that gave him the most lasting fame was The Philosophy of Rhetoric, which is still one of the classics of the field. And in December of 1776 he preached a sermon on the text: Meddle not with them that are given to change.
The sermon, which was preached on a day of fasting called because of the war, opens with some thoughts about national calamities, which are punishments for national sins and calls for national repentance, and he holds that the colonial war qualifies as a national calamity without any doubt. From there he embarks on a discussion of allegiance under two headings: the rights of magistracy and the grounds of the colonial war.
The discussion of the rights of magistrates is quite subtle and interesting, and as worthy of one of the shining lights of the Scottish Enlightenment as one might expect. It is the discussion of the grounds of the colonial war that interests us here, however. We are faced with two related sets of questions posed by both sides. On the one side:
Can we then with justice charge the civil war that now rages in our colonies, on the tyranny or misgovernment of the ruling powers? Has any thing been done that could be said justly to provoke their revolt, to render resistance the necessary means of self-preservation, and so to exempt them, in using it, from the charge of rebellion?
On the other side:
Have artful and ambitious men, both on their side of the water and on ours, had the address, for their own private ends, to mislead a people whom wealth and luxury have corrupted, and rendered prone to licentiousness and faction? Have these false friends and sham patriots inflamed their minds with imaginary invasions of their rights, and with fears and jealousies for which there is no foundation?
The general answers to these questions in a Scottish sermon on allegiance and obedience in 1776 can hardly be unpredictable. An interesting aspect of the answers, though, is that it is precisely the American insistence on self-evidence that Campbell regards as the most tell-tale sign that something is wrong with the American cause. He focuses particularly on the claim that one of the self-evident truths is the just powers of government to derive from the consent of the governed:
This appears to them an axiom in politics as clear as any in mathematics. And though for a first principle, it has been wonderfully late of being discovered, they are so confident of its self-evidence, that they never attempt to prove it; they rather treat with contempt every person who is so weak as to question it.
He goes on to note that if you are going to claim that something is self-evident, you should define your terms. No one can seriously maintain that explicit consent is require, and once we bring in “virtual and implicit consent” we are talking about a “consent” that is consistent with explicit dissent, contrary to any rational use of the English language. The insistence on self-evidence without clear definition, he concludes, can only mean one thing. It is what you would expect from someone trying to perplex and mislead.
Perhaps it means that the governed have a hand in making the laws? But most laws are handed down from prior to generations. Perhaps it means merely that the citizens acquiesce in the government? But then one might as well say that the laws of nature derive from the consent of the government, because we acquiesce quite well to them. Take twenty nations; in nineteen the claim that the government is deriving its actual powers from the consent of the people is patently absurd. Is it really the case that practically everyone in the world has right and reason to overthrow their governments? In the end, is not the entire appeal to consent an assertion of the right to do whatever one pleases in matters of government?
Campbell was certainly right about one thing. Alleged self-evident truths are worthless without the meaning of the terms. That Americans do not generally think through the meaning seems clear enough. I regularly have students who do not even recognize what document has the phrase “We hold these truths to be self-evident,” although when reminded, they usually can recall that the truths have something to do with life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. As I always point out, if the Declaration of Independence claims that some things are self-evident, the proper response as citizens is to think very deeply about what they mean.