Garry Wills: The Mormon Constitution

Roundup: Historians' Take

Garry Wills is Professor of History Emeritus at Northwestern. His most recent book, Font of Life: Ambrose, Augustine, and the Mystery of Baptism, was published in April 2012.

Some years ago I had a brilliant student in several of my classes—the only student, in fact, I ever recommended for a Rhodes Scholarship. In the first class he took, we were discussing the Declaration of Independence, and I argued that the Continental Congress was wise in deleting Jefferson’s attack on the King of England for keeping open the slave trade. Jefferson’s original draft claimed that the King did this against colonial efforts to restrain the trade. I pointed out that some colonies (South Carolina and Georgia, for instance) were for keeping that traffic open. Virginia, it is true, had tried to put limits on the importation of slaves—but mainly because the state was suffering a surplus of them, with consequent reduction in their value. Congress was therefore eliminating an inconsistent and hypocritical attack on the King, one that falsely suggested he was foisting slavery on a people opposed to it.

My student defended Jefferson’s original draft, in ways that puzzled me. But then he came to me during my office hours and stated more clearly his problem. He said that, like his fellow Mormons, he held that the Declaration of Independence is divinely inspired—in that sense, it is part of Mormon Scripture. I asked whether the inspiration was for the original drafting or for the official publication of the Declaration. He was not sure at first; but since he said that the US Constitution was also inspired, it was hard to see how divine dictation could apply to all preliminary drafts of that work, as well as to all the state ratification procedures for enacting it. So we agreed that inspiration must be only for the final document in both cases....

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