Monday, July 07, 2008

Sins of Omission

Steve Benen and Ed Brayton are crowing over a "modified" quote from Thomas Jefferson that appeared in President George W. Bush's 4th of July speech in Charlottesville. Here's Bush:
“The principles that Thomas Jefferson enshrined in the Declaration became the guiding principles of the new nation. And at every generation, Americans have rededicated themselves to the belief that all men are created equal, with the God-given right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

“Thomas Jefferson understood that these rights do not belong to Americans alone. They belong to all mankind. And he looked to the day when all people could secure them. On the 50th anniversary of America’s independence, Thomas Jefferson passed away. But before leaving this world, he explained that the principles of the Declaration of Independence were universal. In one of the final letters of his life, he wrote, ‘May it be to the world, what I believe it will be — to some parts sooner, to others later, but finally to all — the Signal of arousing men to burst the chains, and to assume the blessings and security of self-government.’”

And here's the original of the quote he draws from:
“May it be to the world, what I believe it will be, (to some parts sooner, to others later, but finally to all,) the signal of arousing men to burst the chains under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings and security of self-government.” [emphasis added]

The bolded part was omitted.

Color me unimpressed. I understand the point Benen and Brayton are trying to make -- Jefferson was skeptical of organized religion and that's a fact that has been purged from "civilized" discourse -- but I don't think the omission was all that significant. Famous quotes are truncated all the time. So long as Bush didn't change the meaning of Jefferson's words (and I don't think he did), I have no problem.

Indeed, reading the quote in original form might have been a bigger blunder. The context Bush read it in was his standard refrain about hoping the whole world will become democratic. It's a vision that has never really stepped beyond the rhetorical for Bush, but the rhetoric does matter at least somewhat. And I have to say, given the primary arena in which we are seeking to promote democracy at the moment, I think it would be rather unwise to tie its rejection to "monkish ignorance and superstition."

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