As we celebrate the 272nd birthday of Thomas Jefferson, this excerpt from Jeffrey Rosen and David Rubenstein’s pamphlet about the “Constituting Liberty” exhibition puts the Declaration of Independence in context.
When the Second Continental Congress convened in Philadelphia in 1775, it was far from clear that the delegates would pass a resolution to separate from Great Britain. To persuade them, someone needed to articulate why the Americans were breaking away. Congress formed a committee to do just that; members included John Adams from Massachusetts, Benjamin Franklin from Pennsylvania, Roger Sherman from Connecticut, Roger Livingston from New York, and Thomas Jefferson from Virginia, who at age 33 was one of the youngest delegates.
Although Jefferson disputed his account, John Adams later recalled that he had persuaded Jefferson to write the draft because Jefferson had the fewest enemies in Congress and was the best writer. (Jefferson would have gotten the job anyway—he was elected chair of the committee.) Jefferson had 17 days to produce the document and reportedly wrote a draft in a day or two. In a rented room not far from the State House, he wrote the Declaration with few books and pamphlets beside him, except for a copy of George Mason’s Virginia Declaration of Rights and the draft Virginia Constitution, which Jefferson had written himself.
The Declaration of Independence has three parts. It has a preamble, which later became the most famous part of the document but at the time was largely ignored. It has a second part that lists the sins of the King of Great Britain, and it has a third part that declares independence from Britain and that all political connections between the British Crown and the “Free and Independent States” of America should be totally dissolved.
The preamble to the Declaration of Independence contains the entire theory of American government in a single, inspiring passage:
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,—That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
When Jefferson wrote the preamble, it was largely an afterthought. Why is it so important today? It captured perfectly the essence of the ideals that would eventually define the United States. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,” Jefferson began, in one of the most famous sentences in the English language. How could Jefferson write this at a time that he and other Founders who signed the Declaration owned slaves? The document was an expression of an ideal. In his personal conduct, Jefferson violated it. But the ideal—“that all men are created equal”—came to take on a life of its own and is now considered the most perfect embodiment of the American creed.
When Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address during the Civil War in November 1863, several months after the Union Army defeated Confederate forces at the Battle of Gettysburg, he took Jefferson’s language and transformed it into constitutional poetry. “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal,” Lincoln declared. “Four score and seven years ago” refers to the year 1776, making clear that Lincoln was referring not to the Constitution but to Jefferson’s Declaration. Lincoln believed that the “principles of Jefferson are the definitions and axioms of free society,” as he wrote shortly before the anniversary of Jefferson’s birthday in 1859. Three years later, on the anniversary of George Washington’s birthday in 1861, Lincoln said in a speech at what by that time was being called “Independence Hall,” “I would rather be assassinated on this spot than to surrender” the principles of the Declaration of Independence.
It took the Civil War, the bloodiest war in American history, for Lincoln to begin to make Jefferson’s vision of equality a constitutional reality. After the war, the Declaration’s vision was embodied in the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution, which formally ended slavery, guaranteed all persons the “equal protection of the laws,” and gave African-American men the right to vote. At the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848, when supporters of gaining greater rights for women met, they, too, used the Declaration of Independence as a guide for drafting their Declaration of Sentiments. (Their efforts to achieve equal suffrage culminated in 1920 in the ratification of the 19th Amendment, which granted women the right to vote.) And during the civil rights movement in the 1960s, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said in his famous address at the Lincoln Memorial, “When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men—yes, black men as well as white men—would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
In addition to its promise of equality, Jefferson’s preamble is also a promise of liberty. Like the other Founders, he was steeped in the political philosophy of the Enlightenment, in philosophers such as John Locke, Jean-Jacques Burlamaqui, Francis Hutcheson, and Montesquieu. All of them believed that people have certain unalienable and inherent rights that come from God, not government, or come simply from being human. They also believed that when people form governments, they give those governments control over certain natural rights to ensure the safety and security of other rights. Jefferson, George Mason and the other Founders frequently spoke of the same set of rights as being natural and unalienable. They included the right to worship God “according to the dictates of conscience, the right of “enjoyment of life and liberty,” “the means of acquiring, possessing and protecting property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety,” and, most important of all, the right of a majority of the people to “alter and abolish” their government whenever it threatened to invade natural rights rather than protect them.
In other words, when Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence and began to articulate some of the rights that were ultimately enumerated in the Bill of Rights, he wasn’t inventing these rights out of thin air. On the contrary, 10 American colonies between 1606 and 1701 were granted charters that included representative assemblies and promised the colonists the basic rights of Englishmen, including a version of the promise in the Magna Carta that no freeman could be imprisoned or destroyed “except by the lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land.” This legacy kindled the colonists’ hatred of arbitrary authority, which allowed the King to seize their bodies or property on his own say-so. In the revolutionary period, the galvanizing examples of government overreaching were the “general warrants” and “writs of assistance” that authorized the King’s agents to break into the homes of scores of innocent citizens in an indiscriminate search for the anonymous authors of pamphlets criticizing the King. Writs of assistance, for example, authorized customs officers in a search for stolen goods, without specifying either the goods to be seized or the houses to be searched. In a famous attack on the constitutionality of writs of assistance in 1761, prominent lawyer James Otis said, “It is a power that places the liberty of every man in the hands of every petty officer.”
As members of the Continental Congress contemplated independence in May and June of 1776, many colonies were dissolving their charters with England. As the actual vote on independence approached, a few colonies were issuing their own declarations of independence and bills of rights. The Virginia Declaration of Rights of 1776, written by George Mason, began by declaring that “all men are by nature equally free and independent, and have certain inherent rights, of which, when they enter into a state of society, they cannot, by any compact, deprive or divest their posterity; namely the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.”
When Jefferson wrote his famous preamble, he was restating, in more eloquent language, the philosophy of natural rights expressed in the Virginia Declaration that the Founders embraced. And when Jefferson said, in the first paragraph of the Declaration of Independence, that “[w]hen in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another,” he was recognizing the right of revolution that, the Founders believed, had to be exercised whenever a tyrannical government threatened natural rights. That’s what Jefferson meant when he said Americans had to assume “the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them.”
The Declaration of Independence was a propaganda document rather than a legal one. It didn’t give any rights to anyone. It was an advertisement about why the colonists were breaking away from England. Although there was no legal reason to sign the Declaration, Jefferson and the other Founders signed it because they wanted to “mutually pledge” to each other that they were bound to support it with “our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.” Their signatures were courageous because the signers realized they were committing treason: according to legend, after affixing his flamboyantly large signature John Hancock said that King George – or the British ministry – would be able to read his name without spectacles. But the courage of the signers shouldn’t be overstated: the names of the signers of the Declaration weren’t published until after General George Washington won crucial battles at Trenton and Princeton and it was clear that the war for independence was going well.
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