Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 1078:
DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 1078.

Today, we wonder: Who invented the Declaration of Independence? The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

A camel, says the old canard, is a horse invented by a committee. In our search for creative excellence, we look to the individual, not the corporate body. Yet that can mislead us. Take the case of Thomas Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence.

John F. Kennedy once called a gathering of intellectuals at the White House, "the greatest assembly of brain-power since Thomas Jefferson dined here alone." A genius Jefferson surely was, but a complex and inconsistent genius. Historian Joseph Ellis goes back to drafts of the Declaration of Independence. They're all in Jefferson's hand, but crossed out and added to as Congress debated. Jefferson originally included a passage about slavery:

[The King] has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating ... a distant people ... carrying them into slavery, or [a] miserable death in their transportation hither ...

So far so good. But he went on to say,

[The King] is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase ... liberty ... by murdering the people upon whom he also obtruded them.

What a frightfully mixed message! He blames slavery on the King, then blames the King for stirring up the slaves. That passage didn't survive. Nor did a remark about the British: "...manly spirit bids us to renounce forever these unfeeling brethren."

Line by line, the excesses were pared away. Lesser changes gradually establish the verbal rhythm and balance that moved the Englishman G.K. Chesterton to write,

America is the only nation ... founded on a creed. That creed is set forth with dogmatic, and even theological lucidity in the Declaration of Independence, perhaps the only piece of practical politics that is also theoretical politics and also great literature.

But it is literature that flowed from both Jefferson and Congress. Another majestic document, our Constitution, followed a few years later. It was the work of Congress and a steering committee.

The King James translation of the Bible was made by a royal task force with over 50 members. Now there's a perfect formula for mediocrity! Yet it stands today as the English language at its finest. So what about that horse designed in committee?

There is truth in that image. Creative excellence must come to rest on individual commitment. But the King James Bible and the Constitution were both put together by individuals cooperating on a product they believed in passionately.

When cooperation and compromise are undertaken with that seriousness of purpose, great works follow. If we said less to our students about the Famous Names and more about that powerful process of determined cooperation, we'd see more greatness -- in all our institutions.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


Ellis, J.J., Editing the Declaration. Civilization, July/August 1995, pp. 58-63.

A good account of the King James Bible translation is to be found under "Bible" in the 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica.


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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