Editor’s Note: The following is an opinion column from Ithaca Voice Editor Jeff Stein, who is wishing all of our readers a very felicitous Independence Day Weekend.
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Bus To Nature: Route 22
ITHACA, N.Y. — I sometimes think that I am a good writer. And then I am reminded of Carl Becker.
Becker was a professor in Cornell’s history department from 1917 to 1941, and he wrote on a range of historical subjects — the Enlightenment, the media in America, the history of Cornell — from his perch on East Hill.
Becker also wrote extensively on the American Revolution and, more specifically, the Declaration of Independence. I haven’t read enough to know if Becker’s ideas are now considered anachronistic in academia or out of step with contemporary historical scholarship. But I know this: The man could write.
A few months ago, Cornell history professor Isaac Kramnick lent me Becker’s 1922 book, “The Declaration of Independence: A study in the history of political ideas.” I suppose I should get around to giving it back to Kramnick at some point, but doing so is awfully difficult; few writers today can really rival Becker’s prodigious combination of intellectual clarity and emotional force.
And so, in honor of this Independence Day, 70 years after the legendary Becker’s death, I’d like to share with you five of my favorite quotes from his magisterial book on this nation’s founding document.
Have a Happy Independence Day Weekend, Ithaca —
5 great Carl Becker quotes on the Declaration of Independence:
1 — On the Declaration’s imperfect but worthwhile virtues —
“Founded upon a superficial knowledge of history it was, certainly; and upon a naive faith in the instinctive virtues of human kind. Yet it was a humane and engaging faith. At its best it preached toleration in place of persecution, goodwill in place of hate, peace in place of war.
It taught that beneath all local and temporary diversity, beneath the superficial traits and talents that distinguish men and nations, all men are equal in the possession of a common humanity; and to the end that concord might prevail on the earth instead of strive, it invited men to promote in themselves the humanity which bound them to their fellows, and to shape their conduct and their institutions in harmony with it.
2 — On why Thomas Jefferson was a writer, not an orator — (This one, by the way, is my favorite.)
“Jefferson was no orator. He rarely, if ever, made a speech …. It might seem that a man who can write effectively should be able to speak effectively. It sometimes happens.
But one whose ear is sensitive to the subtler, elusive harmonies of expression, one who in imagination hears the pitch and cadence and rhythm of the thing he wishes to say before he says it, often makes a sad business of public speaking because, painfully aware of the imperfect felicity of what has been uttered, he forgets what he ought to say next.
He instinctively wishes to cross out what he has just said, and say it over again in a different way – and this is what he often does, to the confusion of the audience. In writing he can cross out and rewrite at leisure, as often as he likes, until the sound and the sense are perfectly suited.
3 — On the greatness of Jefferson’s writing:
Jefferson writes in the Declaration: “And for the support of this Declaration we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.”
Here’s Becker’s take on that line: “It is true (assuming that men value life more than property, which is doubtful) that the statement violates the rhetorical rule of climax; but it was a sure sense that made Jefferson place ‘lives’ first and ‘fortunes’ second.
How much weaker if he had written ‘our fortunes, our lives, and our sacred honor!’ Or suppose him to have used the word ‘property’ instead of ‘fortunes!’ Or suppose him to have omitted ‘sacred!’
Consider the effect of omitting any of the words, such as the last two ‘ours’ — ‘our lives, fortunes, and sacred honor.’ No, the sentence can hardly be improved.”
4 — On whether Jefferson felt the horror of slavery —
“We remain calm in reading (the Declaration) because Jefferson, one cannot but think, remained calm in writing it. For want of phrases charged with deep feeling, he resorts to italics, vainly endeavoring to stir the reader by capitalizing and underlining the words that need to be stressed — a futile device, which serves only to accentuate the sense of artifice and effort, and, in the case of ‘the Christian king of Great Britain, introduces the wholly incongruous note of snarling sarcasm …
Jefferson apprehended the injustice of slavery; but one is inclined to ask how deeply he felt it.“
5 — On the abstract nature of Jefferson’s thoughts —
“One never feels with Jefferson, as one does with Washington, that his restraint is the effect of a powerful will persistently holding down a profoundly passionate nature. One has every confidence that Jefferson will never lose control of himself, will never give way to purifying rage, relieving his overwrought feelings by an outburst of divine swearing. All his ideas and sentiments seem of easy birth, flowing felicitously from an alert and expeditious brain rather than slowly and painfully welling up from the obscure depths of his nature. …
Jefferson’s writing is much like that — a ceaseless flow, sparkling, often brilliant, a kind of easy improvisation. … You will hardly think of Jefferson, with lifted hand and vibrant voice, in the heart of emotion, striking off the tremendous sentence, ‘Give me liberty or give me death!’ I can imagine him saying, ‘Manly spirit bids us choose to die freemen rather than to live slaves.’
What saved Jefferson from futility was of course his clear, alert intelligence, his insatiable curiosity, his rarely failing candor, his loyalty to ideas, his humane sympathies. Yet we feel that his convictions, his sympathies, his ideas, are essentially of the intellect, somehow curiously abstracted from reality, a consciously woven drapery laid over the surface of a nature essentially aristocratic, essentially fastidious, instinctively shrinking from close contact with men and things as they are.