On July 4, 1776, representatives of 13 colonies on the eastern shores of North America signed a Declaration of Independence from England. Winning independence was still a bloody war ahead, an unlikely outcome. Declaring independence was rashness, potentially carrying a death sentence for treason. Not, perhaps, what you would expect of well-educated men, many of them gentlemen steeped in the most sophisticated culture of their time. But steeped they were, and some of them really knew their philosophy and their science. The declaration they signed was no rough, back-woods piece of work.
The era was “The Enlightenment,” the “Age of Reason.” Science had become part of a cultured man’s way of thinking. Like their educated European contemporaries, signers of the Declaration, holding degrees from Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and William and Mary, regarded science as a wondrously valuable tool for acquiring knowledge, and viewed its achievements as the clearest manifestation of reason. Isaac Newton’s discoveries represented, for them, human intellect operating at its best.
Thomas Jefferson, only a few years out of university, was chosen by his more seasoned colleagues to draft the Declaration. They altered very little in his draft. During Jefferson’s seven years at William and Mary, beginning at age 16 in 1760, he had read law and also been mentored by a fine scientist, William Small. “It was my great fortune, and what probably fixed the destinies of my life that Dr. William Small of Scotland was then professor of mathematics, a man profound in most of the useful branches of science, with a happy talent of communication, correct and gentlemanly manners and an enlarged and liberal mind.” Jefferson had encountered Newton’s Principia and Opticks, and Newton’s calculus, in which he was to prove himself highly proficient. Jefferson played violin and cello and called music the “favorite passion of my soul,” but “the tranquil pursuits of science,” he wrote later, were his “supreme delight.” Public responsibilities left far too little time for them.
In the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson proclaimed, “We hold these truths to be self-evident….” In an earlier draft, he had written, “We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable.” Whether it was Jefferson or Benjamin Franklin who introduced the change (scholars now favor Jefferson), “self-evident” sounds more blunt, more down-to-earth, as in, “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to recognize that these things are true, King George.” More here: How Science Helped Pen the Declaration of Independence