Politics & Policy

What Jefferson Wrought

The author of the Declaration laid the philosophical bedrock of the American republic.

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If only all congressional committees were so inspired.

The committee charged with putting to paper why the Continental Congress had resolved to declare independence from Britain turned to Thomas Jefferson to do its drafting. If the reasons for that choice weren’t particularly profound — Jefferson’s talents as a writer were widely recognized, and no one thought the declaration as important as other pressing revolutionary business — its consequences assuredly were.

Jefferson’s work of a few days was for the ages. John Adams had handed the writing over to the Virginian while he led the floor debate over independence — and came to regret the missed opportunity for glory. “Was there ever a Coup de Theatre that had so great an effect as Jefferson’s Penmanship of the Declaration of Independence,” the jealous Adams later asked, querulously.

But Jefferson’s words were more than rhetorical theatrics; they laid the philosophical bedrock of the American republic. In the space of three magnificent sentences in its preamble, the Declaration packs enough content to fill volumes of treatises on political theory.

In declaring that “all men are created equal,” it insists that there’s no such thing as a natural ruling class. Put another way, it tells us, as Jefferson wrote near the end of his life, “that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately by the grace of God.”

In spelling out our “unalienable right” to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” it anchors our very humanity in the right to self-determination. Jefferson amended the traditional trinity of “life, liberty, and property” by inserting the pursuit of happiness in recognition that property is only a means to that larger end. “What is important is the colonists’ liberty to do what they believe necessary and useful with their lives,” historian Robert Webking writes.

In saying that “governments are instituted among men” in order “to secure these rights,” it grounds the authority of government in the protection of our freedom.

Finally, in stipulating that “whenever any form of government becomes destructive to these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it,” it asserts the right to revolution. The rest of the document details the long train of abuses by the British government that justifies the colonists’ assertion of this right.

All of this was a direct steal from the natural-rights philosophy of John Locke. These Lockean premises were so widely accepted among revolutionary leaders that the preamble — which has never lost its power to awe and to command the reader’s assent — was adopted by the Continental Congress with nary a peep of protest. “Neither aiming at originality of principles or sentiments,” Jefferson later wrote of the Declaration, “it was intended to be an expression of the American mind.”

It expressed our mind, though not our practice, most obviously when it came to the disgrace of slavery. Yet the Declaration has served over time as an acid test of freedom; it has exposed our failures to live up to truths we pronounced “self-evident.” In the 19th century, apologists for slavery felt compelled to dismiss the Declaration as a “glittering generality.” It was Abraham Lincoln, the great vindicator of freedom, who boasted, “I have never had a feeling politically that did not spring from the sentiments embodied in the Declaration of Independence.”

Those sentiments, so vividly expressed, should always inform debates over the role and purposes of government in America.

“All honor to Jefferson,” Lincoln once proclaimed, “to the man who, in the concrete pressure of a struggle for national independence by a single people, had the coolness, forecast, and capacity to introduce into a merely revolutionary document, an abstract truth, and so to embalm it there, that today and in all coming days, it shall be a rebuke and a stumbling block to the very harbingers of reappearing tyranny and oppression.” Amen.

— Rich Lowry is editor of National Review. © 2010 by King Features Syndicate.


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