Transcript: David M. Rubenstein on the Declaration, Constitution and Bill Of Rights (Part 1)
In an interview with National Constitution Center CEO Jeffrey Rosen, David M. Rubenstein discusses the relationship between the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, and the Bill of Rights, telling the story of how one landmark document led to the next in the context of the evolving story of America’s battle for freedom.
A transcript of part 1 of the interview is below, along with accompanying video. You can use the time codes next to selected paragraphs to find the approximate passages in the video. (The transcript was prepared by Adept Word Management.)
0:00:01.5 We are the museum of we the people. And thanks to the generosity of our friend and guest tonight, David Rubenstein, we are able to display rare documents like this magnificent Stone Declaration of Independence, which you’re going to learn about tonight. We were absolutely thrilled when David agreed to loan this rare printing to us. It’s one of only 50 known surviving copies engraved and printed by William Stone, but I’ll let David tell you more about the history. And this will be joined next fall by another historic and priceless document, one of the 12 original copies of the Bill of Rights, which we will begin displaying next fall. And in one new gallery, we will have David’s Declaration of Independence, our priceless Pennsylvania packet copy of the Constitution, and the Stone Declaration of Independence. We will be one of the only institutions in America, aside from the National Archives, to be able to display such rare documents. And we are deeply grateful to David’s generosity for making this possible.
Tonight David and I are going to talk about the relationship between these documents—between the Declaration of Independence, the US Constitution, and the Bill of Rights—and how one landmark document led to the next in the context of the evolving story of America’s battle for freedom.
David Rubenstein—it is such a pleasure to introduce him. He is one of the handful of Americans most involved in making possible the kind of display of rare documents, constitutional and civic education, and town hall debate that represent the core of the National Constitution Center’s mission. There is a common theme that underlies his loans of historic documents, and that is the evolving story of American freedom. David has been described by the Washington Post as a patriotic philanthropist. And his philanthropy is unambiguously good, in the sense that it has educated Americans about the history of freedom. And his love for democracy and freedom runs very deep. You may have read about his recent donation to repair the Washington Monument. My 7-year-old kids were thrilled to attend the reopening ceremony. He’s lent a rare 1297 copy of the Magna Carta to the National Archives. He’s generously supported Jefferson’s Monticello and Washington’s Mount Vernon. He is the co-founder and co-chief executive officer of the Carlyle Group. He is a compelling speaker about liberty and democracy. I’ve had the pleasure of listening to him live several times, and I know how much you’ll enjoy hearing him tonight.
Please join me in welcoming the patriotic philanthropist, David Rubenstein.
David M. Rubenstein
Thank you very much. Thank you.
Welcome, David. We’re so glad to have you here. So the obvious first question—patriotic philanthropist, not something that most kids dream of becoming when they grow up. How did you become a patriotic philanthropist? And why did you decide to do this?
David M. Rubenstein
0:02:55.8 Well, first, I didn’t dream of it when I was young either. I was just trying to buy baseball cards or do other things that kids do at a young age. So what happened to me was I wanted to be a lawyer, and I wanted to go into government and politics. And I was inspired when I was in the 6th grade by John Kennedy’s famous speech. Some of you, obviously, have heard of it, the inaugural address where he said, “Ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country.”
And so I thought I would like to go into government and help my country. And I thought, ultimately, I’d probably be doing it as a lawyer as I got older and realized what my skill sets were and what they weren’t. So I didn’t think I had the looks, the charm, the money to get into politics like President Kennedy. But I thought I could be an advisor like Ted Sorensen, who wrote the brilliant inaugural address with President Kennedy. So I did go to work at that law firm. And after a couple years it became apparent to me that I wasn’t that great a lawyer. And nobody seemed to be upset when I said I was going to leave the practice of law. I got a job in Washington that Ted Sorensen helped me get with Senator Birch Bayh, who we said would be the next president of the United States. It didn’t work out for Senator Bayh or me. I then got an interview with a guy who was also running for president, Jimmy Carter. He won. I got to work in the White House. I did that for 4 years, managed to get inflation to 19%—very difficult to do that. Then when we lost the election, I had to go back and practice law again. And I wasn’t any better the second time than the first time.
So I decided—I read that an entrepreneur, when they start businesses, they typically do between the ages of 28 and 37. I read that when I was 37. And I said, “I better do something, because I’m not going to be a great lawyer and so forth. And nobody wants me back in government again, because of getting inflation so high and so forth.” So I started a company and it took off and it became very successful. So when I reached the age of 54, I read that on average a white male my age would probably live another 27 years, on average. Therefore, I realized I’d lived two-thirds of my life and I only had one-third to go, on average. Obviously you can live longer than that. I realized I’d made a fair amount of money. And I decided I didn’t want to die being the richest guy in the cemetery and have my heirs just do whatever they wanted with it. I decided to essentially give away the money while I was alive and spend the remaining one-third of my life essentially trying to do something good with the money. And among the things I wanted to do was to thank the country for the good fortune that I have, because I came from very modest circumstances. My father worked in the post office, never made more than $7000 a year. And I figured for me to come to this position that I have now and to have this kind of money, I should thank the country. That’s when I began to give away the money, but not only to the country, but to things that meant things to me and my family, but also to the country. I wanted to do things like buy documents so that they could be put on display, and people would ultimately think more about the significance of the freedoms that these documents represent or do other things that help our country. Because very often, as we all know, our country cannot afford to do the things it did before. So maybe it could figure out how to repair the Washington Monument, but it might have taken a longer time, or do other things that it should do.
0:05:56.6 Every philanthropist is really, by definition, patriotic. Because you’re really in effect—if you give money to a library, an education, almost anything—you’re helping your country. But I kind of said patriotic philanthropy I guess is when you’re really doing specifically something that benefits something the federal government might otherwise be able to do but can’t do because it doesn’t have the money. So the reason I’m doing it is I got lucky. I have the good fortune now. And I want to thank the country for my good fortune by, in part, giving back to the country. That’s my theory.
It deserves a round of applause. And here at the Constitution Center, we are honored to be the beneficiary of this beautiful document. So tell us about, first of all, why the Declaration of Independence interests you so much. You’ve given them to embassies. You’re especially interested in the Declaration. And then tell us about the history of this particular printing of the Declaration.
David M. Rubenstein
Everybody’s heard of the Declaration of Independence, obviously. And it was drafted in this city, not very far from here. What happened was—for those who may not be experts in it or who may have forgotten their history—when the 2nd Continental Congress was convened, it was pretty clear that a resolution to separate from England was going to pass—would be voted on and probably pass. So in anticipation of that it was decided that somebody should draft a reason for it—a declaration you could call it. And so a committee of 5 men was put together. And everybody who was in the 2nd Continental Congress was a member of a committee. They typically had the responsibility of 22 or 23 committees who had enormous amount of committee responsibilities. One of the committees was to draft this document. And some explanation, assuming that the vote were to occur to separate from England, what would be the reason for it. They’d want to tell people in the country. They’d want to tell the King of England. They’d want to tell the troops and inspire them to fight even harder.
A committee was put together of—and how would you like to be on this committee?—John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, a very talented man from Connecticut, and Robert Livingston from New York, and then another guy who was very young. He was one of the youngest people at the 2nd Continental Congress. His name was Thomas Jefferson, 33 years old. He didn’t really want to be there, because his wife was very ill. And he thought he should tend to his wife. He had a number of young children die in recent history. He’s had some family illnesses. And he really wanted to be back with his wife. And his wife did die at a very young age, tragically. So he wasn’t sure if he wanted to stay. But they convinced him to stay, because the other delegates had gone back from Virginia and nobody was really there to represent Virginia very much. He was given the assignment to be on this committee. John Adams said to him, “You should draft it. You should be the principal draftsman.” Because as it was reconstructed, Adams said, “Look, you’re from Virginia. I’m from Massachusetts, so people will think I’m too much of a firebrand to want to separate from England. They think I will write too fiery a document. I won’t have as much credibility. You’re from Virginia.” And, of course, Adams wanted to bring along Virginia to the independence movement. “You are a person who hasn’t made as many enemies as I have. I’m John Adams. I talk all the time at the Continental Congress, and I make a lot of enemies. People don’t like me. Besides you’re a better writer. You write 10 times as well as I do.”
0:09:13.5 So, like most people who are given an assignment, like all of you, what do you do? You wait until the end. So Jefferson had 17 days to do this. He was given the assignment at the end of June—I’m sorry, the middle of June probably. And he had to produce it by the end of June. He had 17 days. But he had all the committee meetings during the day, so he couldn’t do it all the time. So with 4 days to go, he decided to sit down and write it. And he wrote it in a rented room not far from here. And he wrote it with no books and no pamphlets beside him. He wrote it more or less from memory. He did have a copy of 2 documents that had come from Virginia, one of which he had written. But he wrote out this document, and the document had 3 parts to it. It had a preamble, which later became the most famous part of it. At the time it was largely ignored. It had the second part, which said, “Here’s all the sins of the King of England.” And third, “Here’s what we’re going to do about it. We’re going to separate.”
So when he drafted this document, he gave it—eventually after some drafts—back to the committee, and mostly showed it to Adams and to Franklin. And they made some edits on it. They knew that he was a guy that was a brilliant writer, but a guy who was very sensitive to criticism. And by the way, although he was a brilliant writer he hated to talk. So in the entire Continental Congress, he never actually spoke. And as president of the United States for 2 terms, he only made one public speech. That was the first inaugural address. He had a high-pitched voice. He was not that articulate in speaking, but he loved to write. He wrote 21,000 letters during his lifetime. We have about 14,000 of them. He had a unique system. They have copies of them because he would write it out, then he had another pen attached to it. So he would write a copy of it. But when he wrote this document he gave it to the other members of the committee, and they kind of lightly edited it. They knew they would offend him if they edited it too much. Then it was produced back to the Congress on July 2nd. On July the 2nd, it was voted that we would become independent of England. And John Adams wrote to Abigail Adams saying, “This is the most important day in the history of the country. And it will be for 100 years. Because we’re going to celebrate this day every year, July the 2nd, because we voted to be independent.”
0:09:13.5 The reason we don’t celebrate July the 2nd, and celebrate the 4th, is this. When a year later in July of 1777, when the Continental Congress was meeting again, they forgot. They forgot it was July the 2nd one year later. So they remember it on the 3rd. They said, “Geez, we forgot the 2nd. Today’s the 3rd. Let’s celebrate the next day, it’s the 4th.” Actually, what happened on July 1776 on the 3rd and the 4th was that on the 3rd they began the debate of the document that Thomas Jefferson drafted. He sat there mute. He never responded, he didn’t defend it. And about 35% of what he wrote was taken out. He later said it was mutilated. And he was very upset by it. In fact, for 9 years he refused to admit that he was the principal author of it, because he thought the draft that had come out of the Congress was worse than his. And in fact, like many—maybe I would have done it, maybe some of you would have done it—he later wrote to his friends and said, “By the way, don’t you think this Congress did a terrible job. Here’s my draft. Here’s what they did. Don’t you think my draft is better?” But at the time he was so upset that when they made the changes, he didn’t really want to admit to it.
On the 4th of July, they approved the text as changed. They went next door to a printer—his name was John Dunlap—and said, “Print 200 copies of this.” Now, what was he printing? Well, they had taken Jefferson’s draft and they had edited it down, so he had the marked-up version. Mr. Dunlap printed 200 copies. A copy was sent to George Washington to read to the troops at Valley Forge. A copy was sent to the King of England, to each of the states, and so forth. There are only probably about maybe 20 of these left now. The most recent once sold for about $23 million. So they’re very valuable. They’re called Dunlap broadsides. On July the 4th, when they voted for it—and this document was printed on the 5th—on July 4th, there was nothing to sign. There was nothing to do, because there was no text they had edited. So they got a calligrapher. And they didn’t rush him to come out with a document that they could sign. Why was that? Because only 12 states had approved the Declaration of Independence. New York State was being invaded by the British at the time. So their legislature couldn’t consent to approve the resolution to be independent. So New York State didn’t approve it. They said, “Let’s wait for New York State to approve it. And then you all come back when the calligrapher has written it out in longhand. And then there’s something for you to sign.”
Now why would they have to sign it? It wasn’t a legal document. There’s no reason to sign it. They had sent some other documents to the King of England and they did sign them, but there’s no legal reason. Because, remember, this is a propaganda document. It just says why we’re going to be independent. It doesn’t bind anybody. It’s not a legal document. There’s no legal reason to sign it. They signed it because they wanted to mutually agree to each other that they were bound to support this. And it was courageous, because they realized they were committing treason. And that’s obviously why John Hancock made his famous statement about making sure that everybody knew that he was signing it and so forth. But they weren’t as courageous as it might seem, because they never actually released the signature copy until after Washington won the battles in Trenton and Princeton—after it was pretty clear that the war was going pretty well. Then they finally, about 6 months later, actually released the copy with all the signatures. But the copy that they all signed was signed on August 4th of 1776.
0:14:44.5 What happened on August the 4th of 1776? They more or less came back more or less at the same time, and they signed it. I think it was 56 or 57 people signed it. And they signed it by state. That document was then the legal copy of the Declaration of Independence. And then it became owned by the US government when the US government went into effect. So it was rolled up from time to time. It was taken to New York. It was taken to Philadelphia. When it was in Washington, DC, and we were invaded by the British, it was rolled up and taken down to Leesburg and hidden. And over a period of time it kind of was getting a little rough. At one point later on in the late-1800s, it was put on display for 30 years in the Patton office, and it faded. But before that happened, and in recognition that it probably would fade and probably wouldn’t be something that people could see—remember, there were no copies of it and they didn’t have a Xerox machine. There were no e-mails or anything and no iPads. So how could people see this famous document? John Quincy Adams, when he was Secretary of State, said, “We’ve got to make copies of this document, because we need to have copies so everyone can see it. And this is going to fade.” So he hired a man we referred to earlier, Mr. William Stone, a printer in Washington. And he said to him, “You come up with a process by which we can make perfect copies of this Declaration of Independence before it fades.”
Over a 3-year period of time he kind of figured out, how can I do this? And he came up with a process that’s still unknown exactly what it is. But the essence of it was that he took a wet cloth more or less, and put it on the original and took off a perfect copy, taking off half the ink with it. He then took it and put it on a copper plate. Two hundred and one copies were then printed. They are called Stone copies. One was sent to each of the living signers—there were only three left—of the Declaration of Independence. One was sent to each state. Certain universities got them. There are probably a limited number of copies left of them. So when you see in the New York Times on the 4th of July a copy of the Declaration of Independence, you’re not seeing the original, because that’s faded beyond recognition. If you go to the archives where it is, there’s nothing that—it’s so faded that you can’t even recognize anything. What you’re seeing is a Stone copy. And that Stone copy is a perfect replica of it. And the reason why I think it’s significant is that for people to see it, you can see what the document was that they signed. That’s exactly what it looks like. And it helps remind you of that period of time. It doesn’t have any significance other than it’s a reminder of the significance of it. And I hope it reminds people to think about the freedoms and what led to the Declaration of Independence. So that’s the history of it, more than you wanted to know.
It is not more than I wanted to know, and I hereby appoint you a contributing scholar to the National Constitution Center. That was the best account of the history of the Declaration that I’ve heard. My knowledge, candidly, had been confined to the musical, 1776, for the story of why Jefferson didn’t want to write it. Thank you for illuminating it so well. So you’ve loaned us this historic document. You say it was not a legal document, and yet, it enumerated or declared the existence of certain natural rights that inhere in all Americans as citizens. I want to discuss with you what you want citizens to know about Jefferson when they have this priceless document. First of all, you’ve loaned us the Stone Declaration. I’m going to give you a National Constitution Center Constitution Declaration. That’s a gift. That’s the Jeffrey Rosen gift to David Rubenstein. Read the preamble, if you will, and then tell us what you want citizens to know about it.
David M. Rubenstein
0:18:16.3 I know the preamble. I think. I hope.
I can’t do it from memory.
David M. Rubenstein
Here’s the most important thing to think about it. At the time that it was written, the preamble was insignificant. The Continental Congress on the 3rd and the 4th, 95% of the time that they spent discussing it was spent discussing the charges against King George. Because the most important thing that they had to do was to say, “Why are we breaking away? What’s the reason?” Well, King George must have done something wrong. So Jefferson had, I think, 19 different things that he said that King George had done wrong. And there was one that he emphasized very much. It was that King George had encouraged the slave trade. Now the truth is, King George didn’t encourage the slave trade, because the slave trade was encouraged by many other people. That was deleted completely not because King George didn’t encourage it, but it was really because the Southern states didn’t want to get into slavery. Because if you blame King George for encouraging the slave trade, the implication is that slavery is bad. And the Southerners didn’t want to say that. So that was eliminated. And that upset Jefferson. There were other things that King George was accused of by Jefferson and that they didn’t like. The preamble was an afterthought. So why is it so important now? Let me describe what happened.
After the Declaration of Independence was issued, we fought the war. The war wasn’t over—the treaty and everything—until 1783. So it’s drafted in 1776. The war is not over until 1783. After the deed was done and people saw why we were pulling away from England—and England wrote its own response to this saying, “This is really ridiculous.” King George didn’t do any of these things, truthfully—but the British also heavily criticized the preamble. The preamble wasn’t something that was that significant to Jefferson. I’ll tell you why in a moment. But in later years, the preamble became the most important part of it. And the reason is that it is said to have captured perfectly the essence of what our country was about, even though it was ironic that Jefferson wrote something that seemed so much not true, but a lie. He said—in a sentence that’s now regarded by many as the most famous sentence in the English language—“We hold these truths to be self-evident.” Now actually, he wrote, “We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable.” And Benjamin Franklin, being a good editor, said, “Let’s just shorten it. Let’s make it self-evident.” So Jefferson said, “Okay.”
0:20:41.7 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.
Okay, so he says in there something that all men are created equal. How can he do that when he had more than 60 slaves at a time? He had two slaves with him. How could he say all men are created equal? In Jefferson’s view, people were created equal, but they couldn’t live together as equals. That was a distinction. You can say it’s ridiculous, but that’s how he came up with that idea. But the idea that all men are created equal later was taken on by the French Revolution and by other people who wanted certain rights. In Seneca Falls when that convention occurred, women were citing the Declaration of Independence. In subsequent revolutions around the world, people will say, “Well, Jefferson’s words really symbolize what we want. All men are created equal. We have certain unalienable rights, and among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
When we had the civil rights debates in the United States in the early-60s and so forth, Martin Luther King and others kept saying in his famous address at the Lincoln Memorial, “We have to honor the promise that Jefferson wrote—all men are created equal.” Now the truth is it was empty rhetoric, because men knew that all men weren’t really going to be equal. And really what he was talking about wasn’t all men and all people. It was really all white men. That’s really what he meant. Now Jefferson wasn’t a big supporter of slavery early on. He opposed it in Virginia. But he realized he wasn’t going to get anywhere politically by opposing it. So he kind of dropped his opposition to slavery and he lived with slaves the rest of his life. And as we know, most people would say he had an affair with a slave for 30+ years, fathered 6 children with her. Most people would say that, some dispute that. And he didn’t free his slaves or many of his slaves when he died. So he lived through slavery. He still said that all men are created equal. But it’s the idea that all men are created equal as something that has taken on a life of its own, that now it is said to be the most perfect embodiment of what this country is about. All men are created equal, they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, among them Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That is said to be, let’s say, the best statement of what the country is all about.
0:23:11.3 When Lincoln gave the Gettysburg Address—Lincoln always believed that Jefferson was the greatest American. And he believed that when Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence he was, in effect, saying, “Yes, there is something that is unique about this country.” That’s what Lincoln wrote about in his famous Gettysburg Address. And he, in effect, took Jefferson’s language and put it into his Gettysburg Address. “Fourscore and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth from this continent a new nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” Now fourscore and seven years ago refers to 1776. So he wasn’t referring to the Constitution, but referring to what Jefferson had written. And it’s that idea that all men are created equal as really kind of the embodiment of what many people would say this country is about. What Jefferson probably should’ve written is, “All men should be created equal.” But he didn’t really say that, or, “All men should have equal opportunity,” or, “All men and women should have equal opportunity.” But when he wrote all this actually, he wasn’t doing it by himself. He was really doing what later people would call plagiarism. Remember, Jefferson didn’t have any books that he was copying from, but did have some documents that more or less said the same thing. This language that all men are created equal and have certain unalienable rights really came from something that was written in Virginia by George Mason. And George Mason really, more or less, wrote the same thing. Jefferson kind of took it. And in those days, it was considered a sign of great scholarly learning and a very good thing to take what other people had written and kind of improve upon it a bit. You didn’t have to cite them. You didn’t have to give footnotes. Plagiarism wasn’t a word that really existed. And so Jefferson more or less plagiarized what George Mason said. He said it somewhat more eloquently, but that’s what it is.
So the reason it’s so important is that the document has become the symbol of what this country is all about. But it was forgotten from, let’s say, the time of the Revolutionary War until probably around 1815. People ignored the Declaration of Independence. It was only when we were beginning to fight with Britain again, and we were beginning to look for things that reminded us of our history, that people went back to the Declaration of Independence. The first couple of years after the Declaration of Independence was drafted, people said, “Okay, that was why we broke away.” But they kind of had more things to worry about. They had to win the Revolutionary War. They had to get a government in place. They had to make the government work. They weren’t worried about the Declaration of Independence. It’s in later years, really in the 20th century maybe more than the 19th century, that people came back to read over and over again what Jefferson wrote. And it’s so eloquent and so well-stated that people have taken it to be a symbol of our country. And that’s why it’s become so important.