A 'Declaration' Revisited
Any writer of the last two-plus centuries probably can’t hope to match the sheer magnitude of Thomas Jefferson’s magnum opus, The Declaration of Independence. Jefferson penned the document when he 33 years old, ripe middle age during his time but today a mere stepping off point into one’s literary prime.
In fairness, Jefferson was writing on behalf of a committee comprised of an elite group of men tasked with coming up with an official statement of separation from Great Britain. The war against the mother country had already begun a year earlier in Massachusetts but no official written word had been sent to King George III until the delegates signed Jefferson’s momentous document. It wasn’t even the first written salvo stating the merits of separation as Thomas Paine’s Common Sense arrived to readers months earlier, a more widely read (at the time) and scorching document than Jefferson’s work. The Declaration of Independence is just under 1,500 words in length and takes about ten minutes to read in its entirety (signatures included).
While America’s revolution is not the only one in the modern age of world history, it is the most successful (sorry, France). The Declaration of Independence, in essence, serves as America’s birth certificate, a document which did not attempt to create the new nation’s government but rather its society. This is an important distinction since we celebrate July Fourth as our Independence Day rather than the lesser known Constitution Day of September 17th.
Jefferson’s most famous work remains the most important, official document of its time and maybe ever. And in many ways, it’s a minor miracle it was ever written at all. Jefferson, despite his strong dislike and aversion to public speaking, was a prominent figure in the revolutionary scene by this point and a gifted writer and was selected as its writer weeks prior to its ratification by Congress. The job also partly fell to him because everyone else was already busy. George Washington, Alexander Hamilton and other period heavyweights were off fighting the war while John Adams, Benjamin Franklin and others were busy trying to secure alliances with Spain and France or finalizing state constitutions (the latter of which was held as a higher priority than Jefferson’s task). Not that Jefferson wasn’t busy already; the Virginian was spending much of his time sending drafts of his state’s constitution back and forth via courier from Philadelphia to his home state while working on the Declaration. There was the real risk, after all, that the war would be over before the document stating its necessity was even finished at all. America was on the clock.
Based loosely on Richard Henry Lee’s Resolution, The Declaration of Independence fulfills all the criteria of a legal document: it has a statement of purpose, a list of grievances (Jefferson really laid it on during this part), a manner of redressing these said grievances and finally, the party bringing forth these charges (the states). There were parts that didn’t make it, such as “life, liberty and property” (Ben Franklin and John Adams got their gifted colleague to replace “property” with the less volatile “pursuit of happiness”) and an entire paragraph devoted to the injustice of slavery foisted upon the colonies by the King (the irony of a confirmed slave owner writing passionately about the evils of slavery will be addressed in this piece later).
The Declaration of Independence created the concept of “American” during a time where most identified more strongly with their home state than with some vague and ethereal “nation” that technically didn’t exist. It did so by clearly describing universal beliefs and not simply what Englishmen got to do, ascribing “inalienable rights” during a time where the concept was not only realistically absurd but derided as a pipe dream by those who occupied positions of power. One way this document paved the way toward making this concept reality was through outlining clear parameters of what the revolution was to be, both in concept and practice.
Jefferson writes about nature and “Nature’s God” in the now-famous 58-word opening paragraph, a phrase not merely plucked out of thin air for literary flair but rather as confirmation of a higher authority, for otherwise the perception would be the authority of this new nation could be simply an arbitrary creation of various people. There had to be a fundamental idea, one grounded in some universal and unified concept of higher purpose and ultimately, authority. Jefferson, it should be noted, was officially a “deist” in terms of his religious views but was as close to an atheist as anyone in our country’s history. He was not interested in declaring any sort of affiliation to God, certainly not one determined by the government (he would later write Virginia’s Statute of Religious Freedom), so the inclusion of “Nature’s God” is important since it suggests a massaging of the language, a de facto compromise for Jefferson to lay claim to some higher authority without declaring some kind of allegiance to God. It’s a complicated balance and Jefferson got it as right as anyone probably could have, both preserving the notion of a “higher” power while also making it clear any authority would not be arbitrary.
Another important facet of this document is its list of grievances. Without this, it would resemble a colonial age version of a whiskey-fueled rambling social media rant. Jefferson spared nothing with this passage, laying waste to any potential argument for a reconciliation with Great Britain. Most significant of these was outlining “truths” that were “self evident”, a phrase so brilliant in its simplicity that it barely evokes a tremor today when heard or read by most audiences because it is merely accepted as fact in today’s world. It wasn’t then and Jefferson saw fit to articulate the idea he viewed as paramount to the formation of the new United States of America’s society. He opens with “…all men are created equal” to “they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights” and that they sum up to “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Epic material, expert use of phrasing.
While Jefferson was not the most progressive of the Founders, he certainly was its most visionary in terms of what America could be going forward. He dreamed of big things. Alexander Hamilton gave us our economy and George Washington our identity and James Madison our government but Jefferson saw the greatness and scope of America like nobody else, most notably in its potential expanse (figurative and literal) and enlightened future where merit mattered more than pedigree. Ever the contrarian, Jefferson puts forth the notion of citizens having the right to “alter or abolish” the new government altogether, a radical idea he would only become more convinced of during his years in France during the tumultuous revolution in that nation. While Jefferson valued a revolution with a certain degree of authoritarian bloodletting he knew at some point it had to end, too. The revolt could not be an infinite animal simply reanimating to suit its latest boss.
Jefferson’s admiration for the Age of Enlightenment is no obscure fact and the era’s fingerprints are all over The Declaration of Independence, complete with its implications of a social contract to the idea that citizens had “natural” rights to curb the power of an authoritarian government. The purpose of government, mused Jefferson, was to secure rights for mankind by virtue of their consent rather than by decree. Citizens, in other words, empowered governments; not the other way around. It should be noted Jefferson did not necessarily equate this “consent of the governed” to that of equal rights or even access to said rights, and certainly, one could withdraw their consent.
The concept of “unalienable rights” is particularly revolutionary and deserving of frequent review since it establishes that rights cannot be taken away by any government — rights are, after all, “natural” and thus not given by any human being anyway so why would anyone be able to take them away? Again, not something we give much attention to today but taken in the context of world history a truly remarkable concept to put down on parchment. Jefferson dodged the idea of belief in any God or higher power most of his life, privately and publicly, and he artfully dances around those ideas here, preferring instead to discuss the idea that religion is not meant to be decreed by a national government, that people have the freedom “of” and “from” religion, an important distinction in our modern era of politics where one’s religious fervor has become a measure of one’s candidacy (this was a man who wrote his own generously edited version of the King James Bible, after all). Jefferson, based upon the evidence available, would find this abhorrent, believing one can have their religion but it couldn’t be the only one.
Perhaps underrated in Jefferson’s writing is his passion for protecting the minority of Americans (not to be confused with racial minorities) whose views may not align with those considered the majority. The rule of the majority did not mean “wise” or “reasonable” so it was crucial that the rights of minority interests were fiercely protected by governments established by men. This is what the Constitution would later work out in greater detail (Jefferson was not around for this debate due to his diplomatic assignment in France).
Jefferson followed all of this up with 28 specific violations (or “King’s injuries and usurpations”) which fill up half of the official document, a laundry list of offenses which tap into nearly every nook and cranny of colonial life. Jefferson showed some nerve with this passage while perhaps illustrating the crux of the Jefferson Dichotomy, the stylings and principles of a man who espoused the greatest traits of the Enlightenment while maintaining a massive labor force comprised of slaves on a vast plantation in Virginia, one where the traces of servitude were carefully disguised and largely hidden from public view. Jefferson blames the King for slavery while doing nothing to end it in his own nation. In fact, the Virginian devised new ways and methods of making slavery more profitable and sustainable. This, of course, is impossible to jibe with what Jefferson did in his own political life.
Jefferson ends his crucial writing with the first official mention of the “United States of America” and a list of all things which a nation ought to do if it were to be truly independent (war, peace, alliances, commerce, etc.). Clearly, this was no bluff. If the war didn’t work out, most of the signers would be hanged. Of this there was little doubt. Whereas Thomas Paine’s remarkable Common Sense came out weeks prior to The Declaration of Independence and initially more widely read (it would be considered a massive bestseller by today’s proportional numbers), Jefferson’s document was the real “breakup letter” to the King, the final literary nail in the coffin of colonial America. It also expresses, for the first and most notable time, what it meant to be American. Of course, the writing of independence proved easier than the actual war, one which raged on for years after Jefferson’s document was issued.
We soon will mark another year of republican existence, another year of proof that what The Founders believed was not only possible but ground breaking, it is important to recall and examine the document which officially brought our nation to the crucial point of no return. As we mark this milestone it is also important to think of our upcoming election and numerous social issues in play, from guns to terrorism to individual rights and the limits of government power.
These are all important things to think about, especially as we celebrate another year as an independent nation — moreover, it becomes important to recognize how far we’ve come and more importantly, how much further we still have to go. What we have is a gift, one given to us and fought for centuries ago by elitist, deeply flawed and gifted leaders and people around them who had no way of knowing just what would become of their efforts. We’re still here. We’re still a symbol of freedom for nations around the world. For many in the country, the ideals stated in Jefferson’s work seem too lofty and outdated for our current state of affairs. For others, it may seem as though we’ve regressed, choosing political convenience over tough policy decisions. Jefferson’s ideals weren’t a promise but rather a mission statement, a set of principles based on his era but meant to survive not only a costly war but the political mudslinging that would follow its conclusion.
We’re in creakier, vastly more uncertain times these days than we’ve seen in decades, no doubt, dealing with serious issues and dilemmas from seemingly every corner. Our government appears unable or unwilling to get anything of significance done but keep getting elected anyway. That’s on us. Perhaps Jefferson knew this was a possibility, or maybe he couldn’t have imagined it at all. We often vastly overestimate the ability of our Founders to see into the future. They weren’t omniscient and we shouldn’t put that expectation on them centuries after they’ve left us. That is not only unfair to them but serves to keep us from taking responsibility for what we were given in those deeply turbulent days when our nation was being hammered out from uncertain metal.
We own it now, not Jefferson or anyone else. It’s time we decide who we want to be and fast. Jefferson’s wonderfully flawed and imperfect document is our nation’s mission statement; it’s up to us to make sure it remains relevant for generations to come.