Independence Day: Jefferson’s Debt to Euclid

Everybody’s busy reading the Declaration of Independence today. NPR talked to some people on the National Mall about it and what it means, with this sweet result.

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Interesting (and little-known) fact about the Declaration. Jefferson (and his fellow founders) were influenced by Euclid’s Elements, the collection of mathematical knowledge from 300 BCE, which, among other things, lays out the idea of reasoning from postulates. (Anybody recall 10th grade geometry, with its definitions, postulates, theorems, proofs, etc.? I, of course, loved every minute of it.) Jefferson, like students before and since, studied Euclid, and historians have picked up on how the Declaration is structured like a proof, (or as it would be termed in the Elements, a construction).

The “postulates” are those famous “Self-Evident Truths.” Once those are stated, assertions with justification follow in a long line, and everything is wrapped up by a rousing conclusion, Q.E.D.

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Pages from a Venetian edition of Euclid’s Elements. You can view the text at the Digital Collections of the Munich State Library.
More background and details via an interesting article at Lablit (itself an interesting site about science and literature). Oceanographer Seelye Martin talks about the Jefferson Euclid connection, and also about whether another bit of towering American rhetoric, The Gettysburg Address of 1863, could reflect the development of non-Euclidean geometry in the intervening years.
Happy 4th!

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