Today tradionally is a day of family gatherings and food, games and maybe fireworks (if the drought permits). 231 years is a long time to remember. But many do. They remember WHY today is important. Each year, as The Long War against the Unconventual Foe continues, I believe more and more Americans, native or not, remember WHY. Or as the great swordsman Inigo Montoya says “Go back to the beginning….”
Both The National Archive and The Library of Congress have wonderful sections on their websites dedicated to the Declaration of Independence. One article in particular caught my eye, The Stylist Artistry of the Declaration of the Independence. For those of us who love words and language, the article is a treasure trove of literary loveliness.
The author disects the document, illuminating in many places how the meaning of words have changed since the eighteenth century. One I like in particular involved the word “fact”.
To prove this [the king’s tyranny], let Facts be submitted to a candid world.
This sentence is so innocuous one can easily overlook its artistry and importance. The opening phrase–“To prove this”–indicates the “facts” to follow will indeed prove that George III is a tyrant. But prove to whom? To a “candid world”–that is, to readers who are free from bias or malice, who are fair, impartial, and just. The implication is that any such reader will see the “facts” as demonstrating beyond doubt that the king has sought to establish an absolute tyranny in America. If a reader is not convinced, it is not because the “facts” are untrue or are insufficient to prove the king’s villainy; it is because the reader is not “candid.”
The pivotal word in the sentence, though, is “facts.” As a term in eighteenth-century jurisprudence (Jefferson, like many of his colleagues in Congress, was a lawyer), it meant the circumstances and incidents of a legal case, looked at apart from their legal meaning. This usage fits with the Declaration’s similarity to a legal declaration, the plaintiff’s written statement of charges showing a “plain and certain” indictment against a defendant. If the Declaration were considered as analogous to a legal declaration or a bill of impeachment, the issue of dispute would not be the status of the law (the right of revolution as expressed in the preamble) but the facts of the specific case at hand (the king’s actions to erect a “tyranny” in America).
In ordinary usage “fact” had by 1776 taken on its current meaning of something that had actually occurred, a truth known by observation, reality rather than supposition or speculation. By characterizing the colonists’ grievances against George III as “facts,” the Declaration implies that they are unmediated representations of empirical reality rather than interpretations of reality. They are the objective constraints that make the Revolution “necessary.” This is reinforced by the passive voice in “let Facts be submitted to a candid world.” Who is submitting the facts? No one. They have not been gathered, structured, rendered, or in any way contaminated by human agents–least of all by the Continental Congress. They are just being “submitted,” direct from experience without the corrupting intervention of any observer or interpreter.
But “fact” had yet another connotation in the eighteenth century. The word derived from the Latin facere, to do. Its earliest meaning in English was “a thing done or performed”–an action or deed. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries it was used most frequently to denote an evil deed or a crime, a usage still in evidence at the time of the Revolution. In 1769, for example, Blackstone, in his Commentaries on the Laws of England, noted that “accessories after the fact” were “allowed the benefit of clergy in all cases.” The Annual Register for 1772 wrote of a thief who was committed to prison for the “fact” of horse stealing. There is no way to know whether Jefferson and the Congress had this sense of “fact” in mind when they adopted the Declaration. Yet regardless of their intentions, for some eighteenth-century readers “facts” many have had a powerful double-edged meaning when applied to George III’s actions toward America.
Fact. Facts. Something today’s Congress and MSM avoid at all costs. After all, facts debunk Inconvenient Truths. Facts expose (delinked) media agendas. Facts unmask liberal demagoguery. Facts shine the spotlight on useful idiots. Interesting things, those facts.