Thursday, July 5, 2012

The Declaration of Independence: An Expression of the American Mind

In early May, 1776, Congressman John Adams saw daily signs everywhere that the movement toward independence “rolls in upon Us . . . like a Torrent.”  Within the halls of Congress, a great debate was conducted over a resolution calling on the colonies 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.” 

            The resolution was adopted on May 15, but not before Adams drafted a preamble that unequivocally asserted that the people were sovereign and governed themselves by their own consent within their respective colonies.  The preamble thereby essentially declared independence from Great Britain.  Adams wrote:

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, against the hostile invasions and cruel depredations of their enemies.

Adams exultantly wrote to his wife, Abigail, to share the news and declared that the May 15 resolution was in fact “a total absolute Independence” of America and a “compleat Separation” from Britain. 

            On that same day, in Williamsburg, Virginia, the delegates to the Fifth Virginia Convention (the governing body after the hated Lord Dunmore fled the previous year).  It instructed its delegates in Philadelphia to “be instructed to propose to that respectable body to declare the United Colonies free and independent states, absolved from all allegiance to, or dependence upon, the crown or parliament of Great Britain.”  The Convention then proceeded to draft a declaration of rights and a constitution.  Patrick Henry, James Madison, and George Mason were among the notables appointed to the committee to draft the declaration of rights. 

    The first section of the Virginia Declaration of Rights read, “That all men are by nature equally free and independent, and have certain inherent rights.”  This revolutionary statement of the universal rights of mankind was rooted in the political philosophy of John Locke in his Second Treastise of Government.  Locke also wrote about social compact theory that stated government is a social contract among the sovereign people to create a government to protect their natural, inalienable rights.  Some slaveholders rightly feared that the above statement would mean the liberty of all humans, including their slaves, so forced the inclusion of the statement “when they enter into a state of society” to protect their infernal institution.  The delegates embraced social compact theory by averring: “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.”  

By June 7, Virginia delegate, Richard Henry Lee, offered a resolution in Congress 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.” 

Thomas Jefferson was appointed to the committee to draft the Declaration and took up his pen.  He did not have his copy of Locke’s Second Treatise with him but the Virginia Declaration of Rights was printed in the Pennsylvania Gazette on June 12 and heavily influenced Jefferson’s writing.  By July 4, the Declaration was adopted with revisions and stated the principles of universal natural right and government by the people’s consent:

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.

On May 8, 1825, Thomas Jefferson wrote to Henry Lee, reflecting on the meaning of the Declaration of Independence after nearly fifty years.  Jefferson explained that he had not been trying to discover new principles or arguments about liberty, but to “place before mankind the common sense of the subject.”  Jefferson freely admitted that his ideas did not significantly differ from the arguments of the 1760s and 1770s for the principles of liberty and republican self-government by the consent of the governed.  “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,” Jefferson wrote poetically.  He also acknowledged his debt to classical authors and those of the British Enlightenment regarding republican government, natural law, and natural right.  “All its authority rests then on the harmonizing sentiments of the day, whether expressed in conversation, in letters, printed essays, or in the elementary books of public right, as Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney, etc.” 

Jefferson’s accomplishment was to declare the moral principles of the American creed that created a natural rights republic in which all people were endowed by their Creator, not government, with their rights, and republican government, based upon the people’s consent, was created for the very purpose of protecting those rights.  The Fourth of July is a proper occasion to remember and celebrate those principles deeply embedded in the American character. 

By: Tony Williams, WJMI Program Director

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