…it [The Declaration of Independence] was intended to be an expression
of the American mind, and to give to that expression the proper tone
and spirit called for by the occasion.
On 11 June, 1776, Thomas Jefferson retired to his two little rooms in a bricklayer’s house on the corner of Market and Seventh Street, in Philadelphia, took out his folding writing-box, and set to the work of declaring American independence. He consulted no book or pamphlet, as he recalled, nor did he need to, for he carried the ideals of the European Enlightenment in his mind and spirit. He did not intend to “find out new principles, or new arguments, never before thought of… but to place 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. Neither aiming at originality of thought or sentiment, nor yet copied from any particular and previous writing, it was intended to be an expression of the American mind, and to give to that expression the proper tone and spirit called for by the occasion.” The draft of the declaration as it took shape that June has been studied with scrupulous care over two centuries, and a brisk debate will no doubt go on about exactly who suggested precisely what changes in Jefferson’s text. Jefferson first wrote, for example, “We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable.” It may well have been Franklin who suggested “self-evident.” Other minor changes may not have been deliberate at all. A printer’s error may account for the phrase “unalienable rights,” for Jefferson himself wrote “inalienable.” No matter: the heart of the text is the long second paragraph laying out with lucid economy the first principles of American government, and this achievement is clearly Jefferson’s.
As one thoughtful observer notes, to be an American is an act of assent: an affirmation of Jefferson’s creed. In one sense the text speaks for itself:
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 Rights 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, that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these Ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundations on such Principles, and organizing its Powers in such Form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
But if these are simple and self-evident truths, their implications are profound. As one student of Jefferson writes, the “history of American democracy is a gradual realization, too slow for some and too rapid for others, of the implications of the Declaration of Independence.” First, the ultimate authority for the declaration lies in natural law, not civil law. Nature creates all men equal, certainly not in any capacity of body, mind, or spirit, but in each man’s claim to “unalienable rights.” Jefferson pointed only to the most essential of those rights: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Jefferson of course was a close student of John Locke who had insisted on the rights to life, liberty, and property, but Jefferson took Locke’s thinking to a higher plane. Following Locke, he presumed a right to property–a house, farm, or factory; money in the bank; a meadow by a river. But in that felicitous phrase–the pursuit of happiness–he lifted the argument beyond the business of getting and spending. Jefferson was insisting on other, less tangible, things a man might justly claim as his own: an idea, a religious faith, an honest conscience. Nature recognizes a man’s right to be secure not only in his property but in his mind and spirit as well.
The whole–the only–purpose of government was “to secure these rights.” Again following Locke and other Enlightenment thinkers, Jefferson argued that civil government was an agreement, a contract freely entered into. The terms and forms of this agreement might vary, but by it men surrender some of their civil rights in order to ensure and enjoy their natural rights. Always and everywhere, the ultimate depository of political power is in the people, the informed and free “consent of the governed.” The happiest societies are those that can extend the broadest possible individual liberty and still maintain the civil order of the whole. To put it another way, freedom is not free: it demands that individuals act reasonably and with restraint, holding up their end of the social contract. The greatest threat to ordered liberty, however, comes not from the people at large but from government itself, and Jefferson’s response was unflinching. Whenever government becomes destructive of the very rights it exists to secure, it is the right of the people to alter and abolish it. It is the right of revolution, and to this right Jefferson now appealed. Some years later in the fires of the French Revolution, Jefferson would say that the tree of liberty needed to be “refreshed” with the blood of tyrants and of patriots from time to time. It is difficult to think that this unwarlike gentleman was calling for a shooting revolution every generation, but it was unmistakably clear what he meant to say about the government of George III. His “long train of abuses and usurpations” of American rights could only be intended to reduce Americans under “absolute Despotism.” It was not only the right of the American people to overthrow tyranny: it was their duty.
At this point in the text, Jefferson had already written for the ages. If he had simply gone forward to the ringing closing affirmation, he had done as much as any man to establish the nation’s core values: human equality and civil liberty. Perhaps Jefferson’s greatest student, Abraham Lincoln, said it best when he recognized that he held no political conviction that did not originate in the Declaration of Independence. But if Jefferson was writing for all time, he was also compelled to write directly to the issues of the stormy present. The long middle passage of Jefferson’s text is a kind of lawyer’s brief, submitting the facts of the Anglo-American controversy to a “candid world.” In a sense it is a full reiteration of what Americans had been arguing for more than a decade–a “conspiracy theory” we might say today. For most Americans did not see the specific acts of British misrule as isolated incidents of political incompetence across the sea. They added up to a deliberate “design” with a purposeful “object”: establishing an “absolute Tyranny over these States.” It is easy to say from this distance and in the calm light of two centuries of scholarship that Great Britain intended no such thing, and that their manifold American troubles arose from short-sighted men wrestling with the problems of governing a far-flung empire. And if Jefferson was not exactly being “fair” in his account of the controversy, that troubled him not a bit: he was aiming at a broader sense of the justice of his case. His rhetorical strategy here took an important twist, for Jefferson indicted not Parliament but the king himself. Since most Americans had already rejected the authority of Parliament, it was crucial to sever the often unspoken but still potent emotional bond to an ancient monarchy. Jefferson’s bill of indictment ran to more than two dozen charges against the king. Most of these embraced grievances common to virtually all the colonies: the king refused to assent to laws “the most wholesome and necessary for the public good”; he dissolved the popular assemblies (and then convened them again at distant and inconvenient places); he removed judges from colonial control and made them dependent on the crown; he obstructed the naturalization of immigrants; he maintained, against the express will of the popular assemblies, a standing army on American soil in times of peace and “affected to render the Military independent of and superior to Civil Power.” If these charges did not add up to a conspiracy in the end, they nonetheless pointed to many of the painfully real and inciting causes of the rebellion: the abolition of the colonial charters, taxation without representation, and the violation of Americans’ civil rights.
The weakest element in Jefferson’s “train of abuses” was the issue that most troubled Jefferson: human slavery, the most fundamental violation of the principle that all men are created equal. A slaveholder himself, Jefferson was, like many Americans, spread-eagled over the problem: he deplored the institution and had urged measures for at least limited emancipation in his native state, but his own privileged status owed everything to the “peculiar institution.” In slavery, he later wrote, Americans had “a wolf by the ears,” unable in safety either to hold on or let go. His lifelong inner tensions and contradictions on the issue express themselves in the draft of the declaration. First, he condemned the king for exciting “domestic insurrection amongst us,” a biting reference to Royal Governor John Murray’s appeal to Virginia’s captive people. Yet, if the right of revolution meant anything, it certainly meant that a slave had an inalienable right to rise against his master. Second, Jefferson attempted–very unconvincingly–to shift the guilt for slavery from Americans to the king. The British crown, he argued, “has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating them and carrying them into slavery.” In fact, slavery on American soil had been largely an American creation, and Britons themselves were well ahead of Americans in thinking that the traffic in human property must come to an end. Indeed, if there was a conspiracy against human liberty at work in America, it was the alliance of Yankee merchants and southern planters who had profited so handsomely from the traffic. As Dr. Johnson asked scornfully in London, why was there so much “yelping” about liberty from “the drivers of Negroes”? When the declaration was presented to the committee of the whole in Congress, the indictment of slavery was already a dead letter, for it threatened to divide the very union that the delegates were still trying to frame. Perhaps no one symbolized the American dilemma more vividly and painfully than Jefferson, the great champion of liberty who was himself a tyrant over two hundred souls. Four generations later Americans would endure another shooting revolution, civil war bloody and full-blown, to resolve the contradiction deliberately avoided in Philadelphia in the summer of 1776.
In the last week of June, Jefferson consulted a final time with his fellow committee members, who made minor changes, and on 28 June the text went to Congress. In the sultry noon-day heat of the first of July Congress resolved itself into a committee of the whole and opened debate once more on Richard Henry Lee’s independence resolution. In one sense there was nothing new in the debate, both sides rehearsing old arguments. What was different was the sense of urgency in the room and the consciousness that the fate of a nation hung on these deliberations. John Dickinson rose first to argue again for prudence. Independence would be “like destroying our house in winter and exposing a growing family before we have got another shelter.” It was premature to think that France would hurry to aid the American cause, and even now the colonies seemed caught between two fires, Indians on their frontiers and British warships on their coasts. At the very least, he insisted, the establishment of a genuine union ought properly to come first and independence after. But time and the tide of events were now running against Dickinson and the conservatives. Even as he was speaking, word had come from the Maryland assembly reversing their earlier call for reunion with Britain and declaring unanimously for independence. Now Dickinson’s old antagonist, John Adams, rose and was recognized. As a summer thunderstorm broke overhead and candles were lit in the darkened room, he drove home his arguments once more. Jefferson recalled that Adams spoke that day “with a power of thought and expression that moved us from our seats.” Though no record of Adams’ speech exists, it seems to have been more powerful than subtle. The men in this room could accept dependence and slavery or fight for their independence and liberty.
When Benjamin Harrison of Virginia, chairman of the committee of the whole, called for a trial vote late in the afternoon, it seemed that all of Adams’ thunder had come to nothing. New York abstained; Delaware’s two-man delegation was divided; Pennsylvania and South Carolina voted nay. Edward Rutledge of South Carolina rose and urged the committee to delay a formal vote on the measure until the following day, and argument and arm-twisting went on well into the night. When the delegates returned to the steamy State House room the next day, the matter was settled at last. Rutledge and the South Carolina men had been prevailed upon to join the yeas. John Dickinson learned of the palace revolution in the Pennsylvania assembly and agreed to stay home. (Pennsylvania would form a new state government within the week.) Caesar Rodney had nearly killed his horse on an eighty-mile ride to Philadelphia to decide the Delaware delegation. Only New York, which had yet to receive instructions from home, abstained, but even here was a victory for independence: the delegates declared themselves, if not New York, in favor of independence. John Adams, flush with triumph, was sure that “the second of July… will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival.” In this he was not quite right, for the declaration went back to Congress for revision. Although Jefferson winced at what he believed to be the “mutilations” of his text, the delegates were aiming for a document that all of colonial America could freely and fully embrace. Chief among these revisions were two important deletions. Jefferson’s mean-spirited and probably unjust denunciation of the British people went by the boards. More important to Jefferson, Congress also cut out his indictment of the monarchy as the author of American slavery. Though John Adams fought “fearlessly for every word,” as Jefferson recalled, the delegates were determined to win independence first and resolve the problem of slavery in future.
On the fourth of July Congress assembled to affirm the final version of the great declaration and to “mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.” John Trumbull’s famous painting of the signing shows the five members of Jefferson’s committee presenting the text to John Hancock in the president’s chair while the rest of Congress are gathered in a broad arc in the background. It is unlikely that any other members of Congress actually signed the document on the fourth, but John Hancock did. He signed in a bold hand, as befitted one of the richest men in America and an agitator for independence from the start. It was a hand even John Bull could read without his spectacles, Hancock is supposed to have said. Most of the delegates did not sign until the first part of August and some, it appears, not until September. Having pledged their lives and fortunes, all were acutely aware of what they staked in the struggle ahead. As Hancock certainly did say, “We must all be unanimous; there must be no pulling different ways; we must all hang together.” Franklin at his side was quick to rejoin: “Yes. We must all hang together. Or most assuredly we shall all hang seperately.” While slavery remained a stain on many an American conscience, this Congress had done mighty work for the freedom and dignity of man. For in Jefferson’s ringing prose, Congress had articulated the first principles of the American people. It is true that we are no more agreed now than we were then about the meaning of human equality and civil liberty, but the Declaration of Independence fixes these values as the ideals to which we aspire. But for all of Jefferson’s airy idealism, the propositions of the declaration are also a rough-hewn surveyor’s mark driven into the bedrock of American life. Government either stands for or opposes the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Five days after John Hancock signed the document, Washington in New York had the text read out to all his regiments. Their response was mixed, as in fact it was throughout the colonies, and if some soldiers were reluctant to embrace the declaration, it was not without reason. They were surely and very soon to be put in harm’s way in its defense. In New York Harbor some 150 British ships already lay at anchor; onshore on Staten Island thousands of redcoats camped in the calm before the storm. Now that New York’s elite had lost the fight in Congress, a tumultuous mob went wild in its streets. On Bowling Green on the tip of Manhattan, they hauled down with a thundering crash the fifteen-foot equestrian statue of King George III. Some patriot sawed off his head, and the massive bodies of horse and royal rider were melted down to make musket balls. But calmer minds understood that if there was going to be any celebration of America’s “anniversary day” next year, it would depend on George Washington and the men shouldering muskets in the army. These men no doubt hoped, as did Virginia Patriot John Page, that “an Angel rides in the Whirlwind and directs this Storm.”