ACRU

Thomas Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence

To honor our nation’s independence on this Fourth of July, 2007, I think is good to do or read something to become more knowledgable and filled with greater appreciation of our Founding Fathers and thanksgiving to God for the work He did through them. In that spirit, I reproduce the section on Thomas Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence from the essay on Jefferson I wrote back in February 2001 for the Bill of Rights Institute. You can read the full essay – which is biographical, though focused on his contributions to American freedom and government – here.

I also encourage readers to review the quotes I posted here and here from many of the Founders on the significance they believed of what they were doing and did in drafting and signing the Declaration of Independence. And, of course, the best thing of all is to read the Declaration of Independence. Happy Independence Day

Thomas Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence

…[Thomas] Jefferson’s fame comes from a wide-range of achievements and roles – diplomat, secretary of state, governor, historian, philosopher, founder of a university – but he achieved greatness and secured his place in history most firmly with his primary authorship of the Declaration of Independence. In the midst of growing hostilities with the British on the eve of the Revolutionary War, the Second Continental Congress appointed Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, and Robert Livingston to draft the Declaration. The other four members deferred to thirty-three year old Jefferson, one of the youngest members of Congress, to write the document. They did this for two main reasons: 1) his brilliant and powerful writing style, and 2) his Virginia citizenship. As the largest and most influential southern colony, Virginia’s support for the revolutionary cause was indispensable for presenting a united front against the British.

The Unanimous Declaration of the Thirteen United States of America, as it is officially titled, was signed on July 4, 1776 (though it passed on July 2). It was proclaimed to the public in Philadelphia on July 8.

Jefferson’s penmanship of the Declaration grew to legendary status by the time of his presidency. This drew the ire of Adams, whose vast patriotic credentials were now overshadowed by the document, leading him to decry it and the ideas it contained as “hackneyed,” utterly unoriginal. Jefferson agreed. He wrote of the Declaration, “Neither aiming at originality of principle or sentiment, nor yet copied from any particular and previous writing, it was intended to be an expression of the American mind.”

Indeed, the arguments and principles contained in the Declaration of Independence – including, in some cases, the actual wording – were culled from various sources. For instance, it included Richard Henry Lee’s June 7, 1776, resolution for independence nearly in its entirety, including the phrase, “that these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent states.”

Other influences included George Mason’s Virginia Declaration of Rights ( “all men are by nature equally free and independent”) and Jefferson’s own June 1774 pamphlet, “A Summary View of the Rights of British America.” The Summary was intended for delegates in the Virginia legislature, and rejected all British parliamentary authority whatsoever over the colonies, while acknowledging that allegiance was owed only to the king. Given that the king had no tax or legislative authority without Parliament, this allegiance was merely ceremonial and in effect represented virtual independence from Great Britain.

In the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson sought to present the colonists’ grievances against the throne, citing numerous instances of British transgressions against their “rights as Englishmen” under common law, as were often asserted. These legal rights were not enough, though, to forge a bridge with other countries around the world who were uninterested in the “rights of Englishmen.” The enduring masterstroke for Jefferson was in finding that common ground through an appeal to natural law philosophy.

Like Mason and many other colonial leaders, Jefferson was greatly influenced by John Locke’s thoughts on natural law. He also revered fellow natural law philosopher Christian Wolff from Germany. Jefferson had a copy of Wolff’s Institutiones in his library, in which passages on the asserted right of revolutionary war were specifically marked. The Declaration’s philosophical paragraph on man’s inherent and inalienable equal rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness continues to exert influence and inspiration to this day…