Jefferson, the American Mind and the Birth of America
“America is a nation with the soul of a church…the only nation in the world that is founded on a creed. That creed is set forth with dogmatic and even theological lucidity in the Declaration of Independence.”--G. K. Chesterton, British essayist and critic
In 1776, America was going through the difficult process of being born. Stating that the colonies “are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States,” on June 7 of that year, Virginia delegate Richard Henry Lee introduced three resolutions at a meeting of the Second Continental Congress calling for independence, foreign alliances and confederation. Some delegates wanted unity and voted to postpone the final vote for three weeks. This allowed time for debate and for the hesitant and fainthearted to come over or step out. In the meantime, Congress appointed a committee to prepare “a Declaration of Independence.” It consisted of Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Roger Sherman, Robert Livingston and Thomas Jefferson.
Jefferson had come to the Continental Congress the previous year, bringing with him a reputation for literature and science and a talent for composition. In part because of his rhetorical gifts, in part because it was thought that Virginia, as the oldest, largest and most deeply committed of the states, should take the lead, the committee unanimously turned to Jefferson to prepare a draft declaration.
More than 200 years later, we know a great deal about the circumstances surrounding Jefferson’s composition of the Declaration of Independence. We know that Jefferson wrote it in two weeks, standing at his desk. We have his word that he “turned neither to book nor pamphlet” and that all the authority of the Declaration “rests 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.” As Jefferson wrote to James Madison in 1823, it was:
not to find out new principles, or new arguments, never before thought of; not merely to say things which had never been said before; 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 principle 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 Declaration of Independence was an expression of what colonial America believed at the time. As Jefferson said, it contained no new ideas. He merely put pen to paper in declaring what people of that day were thinking. This is clearly set forth in the two opening paragraphs:
When, in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands, which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
It also states that the colonists are impelled or required to separate from Great Britain for certain reasons, proclaiming:
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,--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 foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
In less than 200 words, Jefferson sums up with lucidity, logic and eloquence the argument for the American Revolution, the creation of a new political system and a universal philosophy for human rights, not merely for Americans but for the world as well. These ideas would later be translated into the basic institutions of the American republic.
Consider the opening words of the Declaration: “When, in the Course of human events…” Those words place the Declaration, and the Revolution, in the appropriate setting, against a backdrop that is not merely American or British but universal history. Those words connect it with the experience of people everywhere--not only at a moment of history but in every era. This concept of the place of American history is underlined by successive phrases of the opening sentence. It points to a future of hope and optimism.
Thus, the new nation was to assume its place “among the powers of the earth.” It was not the laws of the British Empire, or even of history, but of “Nature and of Nature’s God” that entitled Americans to an equal station. Moreover, it is “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind” that requires this justification. No other American political document proclaims so broad a purpose. No political document of our own day speaks so boldly about the rights of humanity.
Unfortunately, with the passage of time, the impact of Jefferson’s words has greatly diminished. We seldom speak of lofty ideals anymore. Sadly, the American mind that Jefferson once expressed so eloquently has become consumed with the mundane. What is worse, the revolutionary spirit that once blazed a path to freedom is rarely seen anymore.
Yet as we face the increasing reality of authoritarian government both here and abroad, it is time to revisit America’s fundamental principles and reassess what freedoms we are willing to stand and fight for--if not, the freedoms our forefathers so bravely fought and died for may very well, like grains of sand, slip through our fingers and be lost forever.