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In this video, Aspen Institute President and CEO Walter Isaacson talks to Sal about  the Declaration of Independence. Created by Sal Khan and Aspen Institute.
Video transcript
Man 1: The second paragraph of the declaration is one of the most amazing set of phrases ever written. It is the creed of what makes America and now, what makes the aspirations of many people around the world. Let's just read that first sentence of the second paragraph, which is just awesome. It's, "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." Man 2: "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." Let's start even with the word "we". Who's "we"? "We", it says, is the American colonies, now gathering as the United States of America, but they're basically white males. Everybody at that convention is a white male, most of them landowners. So, what the arc of American history shows is that word "we" begins, over the course of decades and then centuries, to include more and more people. Eventually, it includes freed slaves, eventually it includes women, but that's a narrative of American history, is who are we that have these truths as self-evident, that we're all equal? Now, it's also interesting, the phrase "self-evident". This is something that comes from the rationality of the scientific era we were in. This is an age right after Isaac Newton has made everything in the universe rational through scientific laws and it also comes from some of the philosophers, especially David Hume, that there are just certain things that are self-evident. That's an important concept, that they're not appealing to anybody else to say, "What are these truths?" They're saying, "This is just our rationality tells us "this is true," but then they say, "all men are created equal." Now, they say men. Back then, men was supposed to be a phrase that was more inclusive than just males. Man 2: For man. Man 1: Right, it's like mankind, to some extent, but then again, at least Jefferson, he owned slaves. Women, they weren't necessarily given the right to vote. Even though they mean "man" sort of like mankind, they also really generally mean men, at this point. Once again, this is where the American narrative starts. Fortunately, that phrase gets expanded over time as to what they mean. Man 2: Right. Man 1: Look at the phrase "created equal". What does that really mean? First of all, it doesn't mean that people are always equal. At a certain point in life, Jefferson owns a whole lot of property and Franklin is quite rich as a printer and different people have different statuses in life, but they're saying that in a fundamental, political way, we all start off created equal. We have certain rights that you just can't take away from us whether we're rich or poor or whatever. Those unalienable rights are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness. Man 2: I'm guessing it's also a ding at the King, because royalty ... One underlying assumption is that it's inherited and that you are created better off. Man 1: Right and Thomas Paine, who is a pamphleteer, has just written this document Common Sense and that's helped inspire everybody. At the heart of the document Common Sense is that there's no divine right of kings. Divine right of kings was a British concept, which meant God made certain people more equal or better than others, and the king, by divine right, had these powers and we're saying, "No, the kings don't "have any more powers." Ben Franklin was very much of that way, which was he hated the notion of aristocracy, that some people were born noble and some people were born aristocratic and some people were born royal and whatever, but think about it for a moment. What was Thomas Jefferson thinking? A guy who owns a lot of slaves, what was he thinking when he writes this amazing phrase, "all men are created equal"? I think he was very conflicted. Here's a guy who did not end up even freeing most of his slaves in his lifetime and yet, he could write these inspiring words. If you read about Jefferson, you know that was the fundamental conflict and it's a conflict that we, as a nation, have been wrestling with. Man 2: As a slaveowner, he also knew them very well. He knew them as human beings, perhaps. Man 1: Right, well he fathered children with one of the slaves. Ben Franklin is interesting, because early on in life, he had two household slaves, who he didn't really treat as slaves, but they were his household servants and he had allowed the advertising of slavery in the Pennsylvania Gazette, the newspaper that he published, but he realized, after he writes these words, "created equal", he realizes how abhorrent that is, to his own notions, that people are created equal. Of course, he's by then, freed his slaves, but becomes a president of the Society for the Abolition of Slavery in Pennsylvania, as a way of trying to make up for the fact that he'd erred, he had been wrong when he was young, to tolerate the institution of slavery and he becomes an abolitionist. Of course, John Adams, from the very beginning, was an abolitionist. Man 2: This is important for people to realize. When you take an American history class, it seems like obviously everything comes to a head leading up the Civil War, but this was already starting to become an issue, a moral issue, a philosophical issue, even at the founding of the country. Man 1: And a political issue, as well, because if you want Jefferson and you want Virginia in, the reason John Adams ... He was a great abolitionist, but there were no plantations. There was no cotton being grown in Massachusetts, but if you were a cotton farmer or a plantation owner in Virginia, you tended to own slaves and it becomes a great political issue where the slaveholding states have to be brought into this union. We see that conflict when the constitution is written 11 years later. They're still having this conflict on what do we do about slavery? Man 2: Yeah and it will continue for another 70-something years. Man 1: Yeah, if you want to say that it was totally resolved by the Civil War and there will be some who will say that that was the original stain on this unbelievably beautiful phrase, which is that "all men are created equal." Man 2: Yeah, very cool.