The Letter to Henry Lee by Thomas Jefferson
Letter to Henry Lee (May 8, 1825)
In his 1825 letter to Henry Lee, Thomas Jefferson lays out the “object” of the Declaration, the origins of the “self-evident” principles it outlines, and the nature of its authority.
The “object of the Declaration of Independence,” he explains, was to “appeal to the tribunal of the world” with a justification of the decision “to resort to arms for redress” in response to “the acts of the British government contravening” the rights of Americans. This purpose is clear in the vast bulk of the Declaration that carefully lists these abuses and explains the means, short of war, Americans took to gain redress.
In contrast to the revolutionary movements that followed, the Declaration did not propose to
“find out new principles, or new arguments, never before thought or, not merely to say things which had never been said before.”
The Declaration was not a charter for remaking society according to a utopian model (“copied from any particular and previous writing”). It merely
“placed before mankind the common sense of the subject, in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent, and to justify ourselves in the independent stand we are compelled to take.”
Rather than proposing a new ideology, the Declaration laid out “an expression of the American mind.” It was not “aiming at originality of principle or sentiment.” Its authority rests on “the harmonizing sentiments of the day” drawn from sources going back to antiquity (reflecting the remarkable learning of the Founders). In this it reflected the experience of Americans and experience, as Federalist 20 explains, “is the oracle of truth.”
This is important. The Declaration reflected a unique American innovation, a sundering of previous political ties not on a whim or to promote a project of social regeneration which would forcibly bring into existence a “new man” but to vindicate a long experience of self-government which included the exercise of “unalienable rights” granted to men and women “by their Creator.” When these rights were no longer secured by the previous arrangement and government was exercised absent “the consent of the governed,” a people would be justified in instituting a new government. England had not respected the equality of Americans in regards to the rights government was instituted to secure so a change was not only justified but necessary and prudent.
Because the Declaration’s asserted rights derive from common sense and widely shared assumptions, they are not likely to support the more expansive claims of a “living constitution” through which courts pursue extra-constitutional aims like perfect equality of outcomes. These would be “new principles” Thomas Jefferson specifically disclaimed.
Later the Constitution would give legal status to some of the common sense principles invoked by the Declaration, most importantly providing a vehicle to make “secure” the foundation of republican government by the consent of the governed. Through the Constitution, the sentiments of the Declaration gained real force in the institutions of representative government.
The “plain and firm” statement of truths in the Declaration of Independence still animate our continuing effort to protect what we inherited from those who pledged their lives, fortune and sacred honor in its support.
Read the Letter to Henry Lee by Thomas Jefferson here: https://constitutingamerica.org/?p=3197
William C. Duncan is director of the Marriage Law Foundation (www.marriagelawfoundation.org). He formerly served as acting director of the Marriage Law Project at the Catholic University of America’s Columbus School of Law and as executive director of the Marriage and Family Law Research Grant at J. Reuben Clark Law School, Brigham Young University, where he was also a visiting professor.
Question for Mr. Duncan. You note that the Declaration was “an expression of the American mind,” and that the “asserted rights derive from common sense and widely shared assumptions.” It seems that today, after more than 100 years of increasingly progressive policies being gradually implemented, that about 1/2 of the American mind widely shares the assumption that government’s role is to “remake society according to a Utopian model,” and that a living Constitution should replace the 1787 Constitution. Perhaps another 30% of the American population enjoys the new Utopia, senses something is not right, but has little interest in learing what. So, that leaves about 20% who think we’ve turned the ship in the wrong direction and seriously want to get it back on its proper path. And, our Congress, even conservatives therein, seems unable to do the right thing for fear of losing the next election. So, what will it take to get enough of the other 80% to see the light so we have a chance of getting back to basics and heading the ship in the direction our founders set?
I apologize for not responding sooner. I agree that there are now powerful forces, gaining traction, that push us towards the Utopian model. I am not aware of any guarantee that we won’t go further down the wrong road and there’s certainly reason to be worried. I do find some hope in Jefferson’s formulations–“the American mind” and “self-evident truths.” First, I think it will be harder than some progressives believe for Americans to repudiate their heritage. The collective memory of the nation is, of course, weakened because that heritage was meant to be passed down in families and that has become more difficult as families fragment. But, we’re not far removed from generations who fully embraced the truths Jefferson noted so I think there’s hope that the experience won’t be lost. I also think that “self-evident” truths are hard to keep down. I am hopeful, there too, that some home truths are going to pop up like a cork and reassert themselves, though some of what it will take to make this happen could be painful. I know I’m probably not giving an entirely satisfying answer because I share your concerns. I keep thinking of the distance between 1760 and 1776. Even a few public spirited men and women can make a huge difference (particularly if their minds are well-furnished like the Framers) and some government exactions can become intolerable. That mix could occur again.
Thanks Mr. Duncan! Perhaps a far deeper period of national angst is needed before the 20% will be listened to. This is good reason for us to continue to learn so that, when the time for action comes, we’ll be ready. I feel an increasing number of us are getting prepared, but, at least in my case, fewer than 1% of the people I encourage to do more are willing to invest the time because they’re pretty satisfied with life as it is.
I give TJ two thumbs up for his defense of American colonists. He sure used “big” words, but then he also had BIG ideas!!!