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July 4, 1999 - Declaration of Independence Dispute - 2002-02-01

INTRO: As Americans celebrate their nation's birthday this Fourth of July, our Wordmasters Avi Arditti and Rosanne Skirble look at a contemporary dispute involving the Declaration of Independence.

Music: patriotic music

AA: On July fourth, 1776, the American colonies approved a document written by Thomas Jefferson, declaring their freedom from Britain. Americans traditionally observe independence day with lots of hoopla. But this year the words of Thomas Jefferson also are setting off fireworks of a different kind.

RS: There's debate over a bill in the state of New Jersey to require schoolchildren to recite two sentences from the declaration of independence each day.

AA: These are the two sentences:

RS: "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. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed."

AA: Critics of the New Jersey bill say these historical words are out of step with the times. The language, they say, is insensitive to women and minorities.

RS: Supporters see it otherwise.


"Our students, I think, our children, are not getting a sufficient sense these days of what makes it special to be an American, and in these two short sentences, these fifty-six words, Jefferson distills the essence of what America is all about."

AA: Michael Patrick Carroll sponsored the bill in the New Jersey assembly.


"The fact is that this is the basic founding document of America, and how it can be controversial 223 years after the fact is astonishing to me."

RS: Another member of the assembly, Nia ('nee-ah) Gill, an African-American woman, proposed a requirement that students also hear from two other important documents -- for historical context.


"My amendment really goes to the issue of, if you are going to read this portion of the Declaration of Independence, then you should also read the pertinent portions of the 13th Amendment that abolished slavery and the 19th Amendment that gives women the right to vote. We understand that the 13th Amendment is a national acknowledgement of the persons who were excluded from the Declaration of Independence, and the Constitution, because the Declaration of Independence, when written, was written by slaveowners and fathers of slave children, and it was for the benefit only of white men and white men who had property."

AA: Assemblywoman Nia Gill also proposed an alternative: replacing the references to "men" in the passage from the Declaration of Independence with references to "people" -- as in "all people are created equal" -- so girls would not feel excluded.

RS: Assemblyman Michael Carroll reacted to that idea when he recently appeared with Nia Gill on NBC's "Today" show.


CARROLLl: "As the father of an 8-year-old girl who doesn't feel excluded, and as the father of a little girl who understands that the English language which evolved over many years, over many centuries, meant that the word 'men' as used by Thomas Jefferson included all of us, no one should ever feel excluded by this. The fact of the matter is that we in our politically correct, ultrasensitive, quick-to-take offense days would amend Mr. Jefferson's prose -- talk about being historically accurate, this would be historically inaccurate. To the extent that a teacher feels the need to explain that 'men' means 'all of us,' fine."

GILL: "but if we're being historically accurate, then the words when they were written by Thomas Jefferson historically excluded black people -- "

CARROLL: "Actually, that's nonsense."

GILL: "I would have been owned as a piece of chattel. And it also excluded women and it also excluded people who did not own property."

CARROLL: "All three of those contentions are nonsense."

GILL: "I don't think that the assemblyman can really challenge the historical accuracy of that."

CARROLL: "I absolutely can. The fact of the matter is Jefferson included a very strong anti-slavery provision in his first draft of the declaration of independence. If you can point to any words in the sentences that I have suggested be read that in any way, shape or form even hints that they exclude blacks, I'd be interested in seeing that."

GILL: "I think that when you talk about a historical document, being defined by the people who wrote it, at that time Thomas Jefferson, not withstanding his position on slavery, was a slaveowner and we also know that he was a father of slave children."

CARROLL: "True, so he might stand justly accused of being a hypocrite but he can't stand justly accused of penning anything other than a great oratory in support of the rights of us all."

AA: In the end, the New Jersey assembly voted last month to pass the bill requiring schoolkids to recite from the declaration of independence. Nia Gill's amendment was rejected. The bill is now having a tough time in the state Senate, with further action not expected until later this year.

RS: That's it for Wordmaster this fourth of July independence holiday weekend. You can reach us by e-mail -- our address is And our postal address is VOA Wordmaster, Washington, DC 20547 USA.

AA: with Rosanne Skirble, I'm Avi Arditti.