Dear Scrotty Students. Really? (concluded)

          The “Dear Scrotty Students” letter that supposedly addressed a controversy concerning a statue said that “a key part of the Oxford intellectual tradition [is that] you can argue any damn thing you like but you need to be able to justify it with facts and logic—otherwise your idea is worthless.” The letter did not tell us why the students said that the Rhodes statue should be removed, so we can gauge the worth of their contentions, but, on the other hand, it presented little by the way of logic and facts for keeping the statue of Rhodes other than to say that he was an Oxford benefactor. I understand that money often trumps everything else, but I hoped that the university would present at least some reasoned argument for keeping the Rhodes monument. Instead, the response attacked the change-seekers’ heritage, country, and continent: your ancestors lived in mud huts; the Bantus have not contributed to modern civilization; South Africa has high rates of murder and sicknesses. Even if true, so bloody what?  That “reasoning” does nothing to explain why Rhodes statue should stay where it is. Surely, I thought, a spokesperson for Oxford ought to know the meaning of non sequitur and avoid it.

          The supposed letter did say that Oxford “always prefers facts and free, open debate.” But it closed with: “you have everything to learn from us; we have nothing to learn from you.” You can’t believe both statements. That closing is not a tenet of open debate, but of the closing of the British, or at least, the Oxford mind. No one who is truly an educator should ever say that I won’t listen to you. No one who believes in open debate would ever say that they have nothing to learn from someone else.

          This “reasoning” is akin to the following scenario: A brit tells me that kale is healthy and will not invariably make me puke. I reply: “I do not need to respond to your reasoning. I won’t even listen to your contentions. I have nothing to learn from you. You are English, and your ancestors were brutal, murderous, disease-spreading colonists, and your country can’t even play good rugby anymore.”

          An intelligent, reasoning person should have quickly questioned the authenticity of a letter employing such schoolyard logic (“So’s your mother”). Americans especially should have had doubts when the letter asked, “Thomas Jefferson kept slaves: does that invalidate the US Constitution?” Jefferson, of course, was not a drafter of the Constitution, and the question is unlikely to have come from an informed person.

After reading the letter, I did five minutes of internet research, and I was not surprised to find that the letter was indeed a fake. It was a product of a writer on Breitbart.com in 2015. He had concerns that the relatively moderate and reasoned approach by Oxford to the Rhodes statue controversy had not been firm enough. He wrote the “letter” but prefaced it with: “Here is the letter Oriel College should have written to the campaigners from Rhodes Must Fall.”

Subsequent appearances of the letter on the internet and in emails have dropped this introduction, and without this preface it elicits many comments of praise from people who have reflexively accepted it as authentic. Why the commendations? It must be the intemperate tone towards the African students. Like the actual letter writer, the praise-givers must be fantasizing that this is what they would have said to those seeking change if they were the head of Oxford. In their fantasy world, this is a convincing letter.

Some versions of the letter place an asterisk after “Autres temps, autres moeurs” in the text, and that phrase is translated after the letter’s conclusion. Apparently whoever placed the footnote and those who forward the letter don’t expect their readers to understand the foreign language even though the letter castigates those who lack this comprehension: “If you don’t understand what this means – and it would not remotely surprise us if that were the case – then we really think you should ask yourself the question: “Why am I at Oxford?” The irony seems lost on many who read this passage.

Once again, I am reminded of the power of the internet. It places a world of knowledge at our fingertips, but many can’t spend the few moments to seek it out. They are not equipped to detect sloppy thinking and prefer to remain in the ignorance that the internet could dispel. But they can use the internet to pass along stupidities to other like-minded people.

I wonder if “scrotty” should be applied to them.

Was the Declaration on the Fourth of July?

My personal Fourth of July routine has included re-reading the Declaration of Independence.

Only recently, however, have I learned that the Declaration of Independence, or at least widely accepted versions of it, contain revisionist history. The document we celebrate on July 4 has fifty-six signers. But the only signatures on the original Declaration, which was attached to the official proceedings of Second Continental Congress on July 4, 1776, were that of John Hancock as President of the Congress and Charles Thomson, who was not a delegate, as Secretary.

The Declaration of Independence on display in the Rotunda at the National Archives Museum is different and does contain the fifty-six signatures. Although the Archives version says, “In Congress, July 4, 1776,” it was, in fact, executed later. On July 19, 1776, Congress resolved that that the Declaration be engrossed on parchment and that it “be signed by every member of Congress.” The signers, then, did not sign on July 4, 1776. Most signed on August 2, 1776. You might think that the revision is minor since the signatories had agreed on July 4 to adopt the Declaration; they only failed to put their John Hancocks on the original document. However, several members of Congress on July 4, 1776, were absent on the day the Declaration was adopted. Even so, they later signed the engrossed copy. Furthermore, several other signers were not even members of Congress on the Fourth of July. Charles Carroll of Carrollton was appointed as a congressional delegate by Maryland on July 4 (is it surprising that the Maryland legislature was working on a holiday?) but did not present his credentials to the Continental Congress until July 18. He still signed the parchment. Five other signers were not appointed until July 20.

The National Archives Declaration states that it is “The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America.” Such unanimity language does not appear on the original Declaration of Independence of July 4, 1776, because it was not unanimous. The New York delegation abstained on that date and sought further guidance on how it should vote from the New York State convention. Only eleven days after the Declaration was adopted did the New York delegates receive approval to vote for independence.

I have now realized that I have been reading both versions of the Declaration of Independence without noticing that they varied. The copy that is in reach above my desk is of the original one promulgated on July 4, 1776, without all the signatures and without the unanimity language, while the version I have most often read reprinted in newspapers and in broadsides is the historical re-write. I don’t know what to make of the fact that the most famous version of the Declaration is revisionist history, but it does not matter much which version you read because both contain the memorable language that we most often ascribe to Thomas Jefferson that begins “When in the course of human events. . . .”

Even after reading this text many times, I note the archaisms, but still admire the rhythm and the phrasing of the Declaration’s first section—“a decent respect to [not for] the opinions of mankind. . .”; “Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established. . . ,” “let Facts be submitted to a candid world.”

When we think about the Declaration, we usually only contemplate the opening paragraphs, but I am also fascinated by the list of elegantly written grievances about the King to justify the Revolution. I have tried to remember, not always successfully, what specifics had occasioned the often-vague complaints. Some of my frustration at my lack of historical knowledge was relieved when, after many perusals of the Declaration, I read American Scripture: Making of the Declaration of Independence by Pauline Maier, who wrote, “Today most Americans, including professional historians, would be hard put to identify exactly what prompted many of the accusations Jefferson hurled against the King, which is not surprising since even some well-informed persons of the eighteenth century were perplexed.” (Even so, I find it ironic today that the indictments included the assertions that the Crown had impeded immigration to our shores and prevented free trade.) Indeed, one of the assertions does not appear to be true. My own research into the American jury system for a book mirrors Maier’s conclusion: “Even the most assiduous efforts have, however, identified no colonists of the revolutionaries’ generation who were actually transported ‘beyond seas to be tried for pretended offenses.’” Even Jefferson, it seems, was not above a bit of revisionist history.

Sometimes, however, in reading the Declaration I think about what I have learned about writing from Strunk and White in Elements of Style and similar books. The advice is consistent: Eliminate extraneous words; strive for clarity; be succinct. I look at the opening paragraph and think that it violates these precepts. It reads: “When in the Course of human Events, it becomes necessary for one People to dissolve the Political Bands which have connected them with another, and to 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, a decent Respect to the Opinions of Mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the Separation.”

If I had drafted the Declaration, it would have read: “We are declaring independence from Great Britain. Here is why.” Clear and succinct, but hardly memorable, and I recognize again Jefferson’s linguistic genius. (The spouse says that after finishing Ron Chernow’s Hamilton, she can no longer hold Jefferson in the highest regard.) My conclusion has been tempered as I have learned that the Declaration was preceded by ninety or so state and local Declarations whose phrasings often were echoed in the Fourth of July proclamation and that Jefferson’s draft was frequently improved by the editing done by other delegates to the Continental Congress. But even so, Jefferson produced the draft that in its final form still lives centuries later. And it will and should continue to live as long as some still read it. On this Fourth of July, read it. All who consider themselves American should.