“We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately,” said Benjamin Franklin at the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
President Trump seeks to divide this country — and the entire world — pitting group against group and nation against nation in apocalyptic Thunderdome battles where win-win outcomes are impossible.
But unity created out of diversity created this nation and then made it great. E pluribus unum—out of many, one—was proposed as a U.S. motto in 1776, and adopted by Congress in 1782.
“Science is my passion, politics is my duty,” said Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration.
So while team Trump oversees the most anti-science and anti-truth administration in U.S. history, it’s also worth remembering that the Declaration’s drafters were undeniably men of science, devoted to the truth, as I discuss in my new book, How to Go Viral and Reach Millions.
In Trump’s most consequential assault on science and America’s founding principles, Trump abandoned the Paris climate deal, whereby 190 nations had unanimously banded together to save themselves (and us) from catastrophic climate change. But as we will see, the founding fathers saw preserving the environmental for future generations as a core principle.
In his book on the Declaration, historian Gay Wills calls it a “scientific paper,” and explains that “the Declaration’s opening is Newtonian. It lays down the law.”
Jefferson’s masterpiece famously begins “When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people,” to break free of tyranny and “assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them,” they should explain why they are impelled to do so:
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.
The double appeal to “Nature” — including the explicit appeal to “the laws of Nature” in the first sentence — is particularly salient. After all, Sir Isaac Newton’s landmark 1687 text, “Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica,” famously lays out his three laws of motion, which many at the time called the “laws of nature.”
How familiar was Jefferson with the Principia? Very. Jefferson had studied it so closely he even wrote a letter identifying what he calculated to be a tiny mathematical error in it. For nearly two decades — including the entire time he was vice president and president — Jefferson was also president of the nation’s oldest scientific society, which was founded by the great American scientist Ben Franklin.
Jefferson and Franklin grounded the Declaration in the scientific laws of nature. That’s clear from a crucial edit made by Franklin. As Historian Walter Isaacson explained in biography of Franklin:
The most important of his edits was small but resounding. He crossed out, using the heavy backslashes that he often employed, the last three words of Jefferson’s phrase “We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable” and changed them to the words now enshrined in history: “We hold these truths to be self-evident.”
The truths were “self-evident,” which is to say axiomatic.
The idea of a “self-evident” truth drew from “the scientific determinism espoused by Isaac Newton and the analytic empiricism of Franklin’s close friend David Hume,” Isaacson noted. Hume referred to “truths that are so by virtue of reason and definition” as “self-evident” truths.
Today, it is the laws of nature, studied and enumerated by scientists, that make clear we are poised to render those unalienable rights all but unattainable for billions of humans on our current path of unrestricted greenhouse gas emissions. It is the laws of nature that make clear Americans can’t achieve sustainable prosperity if the rest of the world doesn’t, and vice versa.
Our founding fathers firmly believed we had an equal duty to future generations. “The most succinct, systematic treatment of intergenerational principles left to us by the founders,” which is how The Constitutional Law Foundation described Jefferson’s famous September 1789 letter to James Madison.
The key question for Jefferson was very simple: Must later generations “consider the preceding generation as having had a right to eat up the whole soil of their country, in the course of a life?” Soil was an obvious focal point for examining the issue of intergenerational equity for a Virginia planter like Jefferson.
The answer to Jefferson was another self-evident truth: “Every one will say no; that the soil is the gift of God to the living, as much as it had been to the deceased generation.”
It is immoral for one generation to destroy another generation’s vital soil or its livable climate. Hence it is unimaginably immoral to Dust-Bowlify their soil and ruin their livable climate irreversibly for many centuries, if not millennia. Yet that is what Trump’s policies would put us on track to do.
Indeed, last November, Trump’s White House signed off on the most detailed assessment of climate change’s impacts on America Trump’s pro-pollution policies prevail.
Not many people will be pursuing “happiness” under those conditions — a devastating 8°F to 10°F warming over the interior of this country leading to widespread Dust-Bowlification. Yet at the same time coastal area will be dealing with sea levels rising a foot a decade and much of the ocean turned into a hot, acidic dead zone.
Billions will be struggling with constant threats to life and liberty. Trump’s policies will create more wars, hundreds of failed states like Syria, and millions of refugees at our own doorstep.
We live in perilous times. We must all hang together or else, as President Trump would have it, we will surely all hang separately.