In an 1825 letter to Henry Lee, Thomas Jefferson reflected on the making of the Declaration of Independence and its principles. Jefferson admitted that the Declaration was intended to be “an expression of the American mind, and to give to that expression the proper tone and spirit called for by the occasion. All its authority rests then on the harmonizing sentiments of the day, whether expressed in conversation, in letters, [and] printed essays.”
The “harmonizing sentiments” of the American mind were present during the debate over British tyranny and taxes in the 1760s and 1770s. The American colonists drew on ancient history and philosophy, the English constitutional tradition, Protestant Christianity, and the Enlightenment ideas especially of John Locke in asserting their rights. They claimed the traditional rights of Englishmen and more importantly their inalienable natural rights and the republican ideal of governing themselves by their own consent.
In the wake of the Boston Tea Party and punitive parliamentary Coercive Acts, the Continental Congress met in 1774 as an expression of American unity. The delegates penned a declaration of rights that defended their natural rights and republican ideals. “That they are entitled to life, liberty, & property, and they have never ceded to any sovereign power whatever, a right to dispose of either without their consent.”
The natural rights republicanism continued to shape the American thinking and debate about independence. For example, a young Alexander Hamilton wrote in Farmer Refuted, “The sacred rights of mankind are not to be rummaged for, among old parchments, or musty records. They are written, as with a sun beam, in the whole volume of human nature, by the hand of divinity itself; and can never be erased or obscured by mortal power.”
In July 1775, Jefferson helped to draft the Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms. He wrote, “The arms we have been compelled by our enemies to assume, we will, in defiance of every hazard, with unabating firmness and perseverence, employ for the preservation of our liberties; being with one mind resolved to die freemen rather than to live slaves.”
In 1776, Thomas Paine electrified the colonies with the best-selling pamphlet, Common Sense, which firmly put republican principles and American independence in the center of the debate. Paine wrote that the rule of law rather than the arbitrary will of a monarch was the basis of guarding essential liberties. “LAW IS KING.” The purpose of that new government would be to protect liberty, property, and religious freedom,” he wrote.
The Continental Congress took up the question of independence that spring. On May 10, it adopted a resolution for the representative colonial assemblies and conventions of the people to “adopt such government as shall, in the opinion of the representatives of the people, best conduce to the happiness and safety of their constituents in particular and America in general.”
Five days later, Adams added his own even more radical preamble expressing republican principles. “It is necessary that the exercise of every kind of authority under the said Crown should be totally suppressed, and all the powers of government exerted under the authority of the people of the colonies, for the preservation of internal peace, virtue, and good order, as well as for the defense of their lives, liberties, and properties.” This bold declaration was essentially a break from British authority and declaration of American sovereignty and liberties. He wrote excitedly to Abigail that this measure was “independence itself.”
On June 7, Richard Henry Lee rose in Congress and offered a resolution for independence. “That these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States, that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved.” Congress appointed a committee to draft a Declaration of Independence while states such as Virginia wrote constitutions and their own declarations of rights.
On June 12, the Virginia Convention published the Virginia Declaration of Rights that asserted the Lockean idea of the rights of nature and maintained that the purpose of government was to protect those liberties. It read: “That all men are by nature equally free and independent and have certain inherent rights… 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.”
The committee selected Jefferson to draft the Declaration of Independence because he was well-known for the elegance of his pen. In 1774, Jefferson had written the influential Summary View of the Rights of British North America. In that pamphlet, he described the natural rights basis of consensual republican government. The American colonists were “a free people claiming their rights, as derived from the laws of nature, and not as the gift of their chief magistrate.” The colonists argued for the “rights which God and the laws have given equally and independently to all.” He concluded with a reflection on rights embedded in human nature: “The God who gave us life gave us liberty at the same time; the hand of force may destroy, but cannot disjoin them.”
When Jefferson sat down to compose the Declaration, he probably did not have a copy of Locke’s Second Treatise of Government. However, he knew the ideas of that book well and had a copy of the Virginia Declaration of Rights, which had been printed in the Pennsylvania Gazette on June 12. Benjamin Franklin and John Adams edited the document lightly and submitted it to Congress.
On July 1, John Dickinson and Adams engaged in an epic debate over whether America should declare its independence. The next day, Congress voted for independence by passing Lee’s resolution. Adams wrote to his wife, Abigail, that, “The Second Day of July will be the most memorable Epocha, in the history of America….It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires, and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.”
The Congress then considered and edited the document much to Jefferson’s chagrin. It adopted the Declaration of Independence on July 4 and enunciated the natural rights principles of the American republic.
The Declaration claimed that the natural rights of all human beings were self-evident truths that were axiomatic and did not need to be proven. They were equally “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
The equality of human beings meant that they were equal in giving consent to their representatives in a republic to govern. All authority flowed from the sovereign people equally. The purpose of that government was to protect the rights of the people. “That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” The people had the right to overthrow a government that violated the people’s rights with a long train of abuses.
The American constitutional regime would provide the framework—or “picture of silver” for the “apple of gold” (the Declaration) in Abraham’s Lincoln’s immortal phrase—for creating a lasting republic and “more perfect Union” to preserve those natural rights and liberties in 1787.
Tony Williams is a Senior Fellow at the Bill of Rights Institute and is the author of six books including Washington and Hamilton: The Alliance that Forged America with Stephen Knott. He is currently writing a book on the Declaration of Independence.
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