The Declaration of Independence: A Summery of European Thought
When one examines the Declaration of Independence, one questions how truly revolutionary this so called premier document of human rights truly is. In a philosophical sense, many of the ideas possessed in the Declaration of Independence were far from original. Beginning in the early 1700’s and gaining momentum all through the 18th century was a period in history commonly referred to as the Age of Enlightenment. The thoughts that characterized this age included new ideas on the construction of the universe that had gained acceptance during the Scientific Revolution. As theorists began questioning such widely accepted truths such as the Ptolemaic view of the Universe, philosophers were encouraged to question human nature. Banalities such as oppression of the lower class, exclusive rights of nobility, authority of the clergy and catholic church, and dictatorships and monarchial type governments were often targets of these revolutionary thinkers. Most notably the thoughts and writings of John Locke, Baron de Montesquieu, and Voltaire are remembered for challenging the old regime and ushering in a new age of liberty, religious tolerance, and preservation of the rights of citizens. Interestingly enough, the Declaration of Independence, when viewed in light of the documents of these European thinkers, does not appear revolutionary but rather comes across as a plagiarism of new European ideals (Palmer).
The basis of Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence was borrowed from John Locke, the philospher lawyer of England who pioneered the natural rights of man. Locke believed that humans entered the world a tabula rasa, or blank page. This thought implied that human beings were innately good and orderly upon birth. Viewing humans from Locke’s perspective, the traditional purpose of government could be seen as useless, for it was formerly believed that government was a tool to combat the selfish, evil, corrupt, chaotic nature of man. Pursuing his belief, Locke saw the primary purpose of government to be the protection of the natural rights of man. Locke’s thoughts gained widespread acceptance in the colonies in the years before the revolution. During the period surrounding the writing of the Declaration of Independence, the colonist’s chief complaint of England was directed towards the oppressive nature of British government. Jefferson himself wrote of the English government as “a deliberate, systematic plan of reducing us to slavery” (Brodie, 96). Needless to say, the colonists came to agree “with [Locke] in the natural rights of man to life, liberty, and property” (Brodie, 96). Locke believed that the right to personal property was paramount and that people came together in an organized community to protect this right and gain advantages they could not individually come by. The social contract the people entered into with each other was the basis of the contract of government, under which all political power is a trust for the benefit of the people. The state, Locke believed, should be based on a contract between ruler and subjects, who give him power to protect their property that without the state could be taken away by unprincipled forces. Thomas Jefferson’s adherence to these thoughts is seen in his claim that government should be based on “unalienable rights.” Most of his Declaration of Independence was a list of grievances and indictments of King George III for his failure to keep his contract with his American subjects. American’s believed the King had broken his contract, and therefore the owed loyalty was void.
Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence was representative of a growing since of nationalism within colonial America. Colonists combined their interests and held that absolute rule by a monarchy was against their will. The French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau inspired this social bond amongst the colonists that led Jefferson to issue complaints against the King. Rousseau’s Social Contract published in 1762 qualified government as “an agreement among the people.” According to Rousseau, organized civil society rested upon a collective liberty where the wills of individuals are fused and represented in government. He believed society must be bound by the common interest of the people in a given social group. As loyalty to the King was an aberration from the common interest of enlightened colonists at the time the Declaration of Independence was written, Rousseau would have advocated a separation from the King. Rousseau thought that people should have a “sense of membership, of community and fellowship, of responsible citizenship and intimate participation in public affairs.” Rousseau’s most important contribution to the American colonists was the idea of nationalism. People of the same ethnic, religious, and cultural station in life should come together within a state. In light of this statement Jefferson believed that Colonial America no longer had ties with England but was rather a separate nation and with a new sense of nationality. Jefferson like Rousseau believed that the colonists’ allegiance should be directed towards each other rather than towards England (Palmer).
Colonial assertion of rights and liberty characterized America at the close of the 18th century. The Declaration of Independence followed the 18th century belief that American colonists were entitled to the same rights of their English counterparts. Within America, colonists believed that the original English settlers brought with them their English rights in full and had sense passed them down to their descendants. It naturally followed that the colonists should enjoy the same rights and liberties of an Englishman. However, the colonists became insecure at the close of the 150 years of salutary neglect. The colonist harbored suspicions that tyranny loomed in the near future. The abundance of new taxes and recent requirement to quarter British soldiers put a flame under these suspicions and set a wildfire of insecurity throughout colonial America. Baron de Montesquieu, a French philosopher of the previous generation had developed a philosophy that explained the colonists’ newfound want for political liberty. He believed that “the political liberty of the subject is a tranquility of mind arising from the opinion each person has of his safety (Rakove 290).” Thus, according to Montesquieu, colonists believed they no longer had political liberty because they no longer thought themselves safe from British oppression. The quest for political liberty and the natural rights of man brought Jefferson to write the Declaration of Independence.
“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 (Jefferson).”
This passage summarizes Jefferson’s opinion that government is an institution that’s purpose is the protection of the rights of those governed. However, Jefferson’s opinion with regards to the nature of government was not original but rather borrowed from the following excerpt of The Spirit of Laws.
“In a true state of nature, indeed, all men are born equal, but they cannot continue in this equality. Society makes them lose it, and they recover it only by the protection of law (Montesquieu).”
Historians have little doubt that Montesquieu largely influenced Jefferson in his writing of the Declaration of Independence, as it is known that Jefferson owned a copy of Montesquieu’s Spirit of Laws (Brodie, 97).
The Age of Enlightenment is noticed to have reached America by the time the Declaration of Independence was written. The impact that European thinkers had on the colonists is detected in the striking similarities between the language and philosophies of Thomas Jefferson and contemporary European philosophers. Yet while the Declaration of Independence was based on a conglomerate of borrowed phrases, the final product was a revolutionary step. Never before had such dramatic front and immediate denouncement of a monarchy taken place. The colonists and Jefferson in particular were the first to actually enact the radical ideas of life, liberty, and rights of man that European philosophers had merely put in writing. The American experiment set the precedent for nationalism and the claiming of a separate and individual state for those of similar backgrounds. The Declaration of Independence likewise attacked those formerly untouchable enterprises, monarchies, and triggered a chain reaction in Europe that would cause overthrows of the old regime. In fact the basis of the French Revolution, The Declaration of The Rights of Man and Citizen, was an extension of Jefferson’s work, as Jefferson himself was in France at the time of the writing. Thus Jefferson’s discourse on the faults of monarchial governments was read throughout the world and established America as a new breeding ground of revolutionary and enlightened thought.
Brodie, Fawn M. Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History. New York: W.W. Norton &
Company Inc. 1974
Jefferson, Thomas. Declaration of Independence, 4 July 1776
Montesquieu, Baron de. The Spirit of the Laws. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1989
Palmer, R. R. Joel Colton. A History of the Modern World. New York: Alfred A. Knopf,
Rakove, Jack N. Original Meanings: Politics and Ideas in the Making of the Constitution.
New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997
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