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The Declaration of Independence: Good Spin Plus High Principles


I don't mean to be unpatriotic or disrespectful to Thomas Jefferson, God forbid, and the other signers of the Declaration of Independence. And far be it from me to challenge the inspiration of the words at the beginning of the Declaration that most of us memorized as young school children:

"We hold these truths to be self-evident: 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...."

But it would be interesting and provocative to analyze the Declaration of Independence from the perspective of a political communications strategist.

The communications challenge that Jefferson faced was daunting. Put simply, he had to persuade the American public and, especially, the leaders of European nations (besides, of course, Great Britain) that, under some circumstances, it was okay to commit treason. That is, after all, just what Jefferson and other prospective signers of the Declaration were about to do.

The two strategies Jefferson used to shape public opinion -- "out of a decent respect to the opinions of mankind" -- are quite familiar to today's campaign political consultants. First, mount negative attacks demonizing the opposition, picking the easiest target as the scapegoat. Second, obscure the worst negative issue -- the so-called big elephant in the room -- with a positive and inspirational message that diverts attention.

As to going negative, Jefferson's obvious choice was to attack King George III personally. Not exactly surprising. The king was a pompous, arrogant and stubborn man. He became a hated symbol of all that angered American colonists in the 1760s and early 1770s. In the Declaration, Jefferson referred to King George not by name but as a king who was an "absolute despot" exercising "absolute tyranny."

But wait, something is missing.

How could King George have "absolute power" if he could not wage war against the colonies without parliament funding it? And who was responsible for all the offensive legislation and taxes, specifically itemized in 10 of the 28 offenses listed in the Declaration to justify independence?

Who, ultimately, was responsible for what became the most important and galvanizing battle cry of the Revolution -- "no taxation without representation"?

The answer, of course, is the parliament. Yet that word does not appear anywhere in the Declaration of Independence.

Ever since the Magna Carta in the year 1215, the principle of a sovereign whose absolute powers were checked by, first, a council of elders, and then a legislative body called parliament had emerged in England over the centuries. By the 17th and 18th century, the elected lower House of Commons had the exclusive power to tax and raise money. Jefferson and the rest of the Founders knew that and, thus, knew that describing the power of King George as "absolute" and, thus, blaming him personally for the right to revolution was nonsense.

So what is going on here?

Of course we know the answer. This was pure political spin. Scapegoat the king, obviously an easier target to demonize than the collective gentlemen of the House of Commons. There was also undoubtedly an intellectual and cultural affinity and similarities between Jefferson and the co-signers of the Declaration and the men of parliament. Both groups were men of property representing men of property, and with similar professional backgrounds (most were lawyers!).

The second strategy was to obscure the "big negative" with soaring inspirational messages.

Jefferson began the Declaration by claiming that rebellion against government could be justified when government violated the "laws of nature and of God." And then, like all great writers, he penned the memorable soaring closing punch line:

"And for the support of this declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor."

But wait -- again. Besides the word "parliament," there was another word missing from the Declaration -- one that Jefferson, who had written about "unalienable rights" to be "born equal," wanted the world to forget. That word was "slavery."

The signers of the Declaration knew that men and women and children suffered as human chattel in their midst. Some of the founders claimed to be embarrassed by slavery. Jefferson at one point referred to the slave trade as an "execrable commerce." Washington freed his slaves in his will, over the opposition of his relatives. "He knew his legacy depended on it," wrote historian Joseph Ellis in his book, Founding Brothers. "He knew that we were watching."

But while Jefferson freed the children of his slave and lover Sally Hemmings, Ms. Hemmings herself remained a slave. Jefferson still owned 150 slaves when he penned the words, "all men are created equal." And when George Washington was virtually toothless in 1784, five years before he became the nation's first president, he hired a dentist to extract nine teeth from his slaves to implant into his jaw.

Hypocrisy? Of course. Just imagine if Jefferson had actually written, "all men are created equal -- except slaves, who are not men." There probably would have been less support from the northern colonies at least for the revolution -- certainly not from the more liberal abolitionist societies that existed even then. And one can imagine that with such a document openly admitting that slaves were non-humans, the unanimity principle adopted by the signers of the Declaration could have prevented or delayed any declaration at all on July 4, 1776.

We know Jefferson and some other slave holders in the room wanted language in the Declaration condemning the slave trades, and they and some northerners wanted to condemn slavery itself. But to gain unanimity -- a requirement they imposed on themselves -- this and other phrases condemning parliament more directly had to be dropped to achieve compromise to be able to issue any declaration at all.

Despite this perhaps overly cynical analysis from the perspective of a communications strategist, we still to this day should glorify the Declaration of Independence and the great men who drafted and signed it. Placing today's mores on the culture of a society more than two centuries ago is as invalid as it is a waste of time.

We should celebrate every Fourth of July for the eloquence of the Declaration of Independence, the democratic and human rights values it articulates, and the courage of the men who signed it (all of whom, after all, would have been hung had the British been successful in putting down the rebellion, as most people believed would be the case).

So we can conclude that Thomas Jefferson and his colleagues were not perfect human beings -- surprise!

And, get ready for this revelation: We can also conclude that they were politicians concerned about the "opinions of mankind."

That's right, politicians.

Shocking.

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Lanny J. Davis, a Washington lawyer and former special counsel to President Clinton, served as a member of President George W. Bush's Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board. He is the author of "Scandal: How 'Gotcha' Politics Is Destroying America."

This piece appeared in Mr. Davis' weekly column, "Purple Nation," in the Washington Times and the Hill.com/PunditsBlog, Monday, July 6, 2009.