the declaration of independence -- 10/11/17

Today's selection -- from American Sphinx by Joseph J. Ellis. Thomas Jefferson's indelible phrase from the Declaration of Independence was "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." Very similar phrases had been used by many others before, including by George Mason and John Locke:

"The most famous section of the Declaration [of Independence], which has become the most quoted statement of human rights in recorded history as well as the most eloquent justification of revolution on behalf of them, went through the Continental Congress without comment and with only one very minor change. These are, in all probability, the best­-known fifty-eight words in American history: 'We hold these truths to be self evident; that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain [inherent and] inalienable Rights; that among these are life, liberty & the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.' This is the seminal state­ment of the American Creed, the closest approximation to political poetry every produced in American culture. ... The entire history of liberal reform in Amer­ica can be written as a process of discovery, within Jefferson's words, of a spiritually sanctioned mandate for ending slavery, providing the rights of citizenship to blacks and women, justifying welfare programs for the poor and expanding individual freedoms. ...

"Jefferson ... was accused of plagiarism by enemies or jealous friends on so many occasions throughout his career that he developed a standard reply. 'Neither aiming at originality of principle or sentiment, nor yet copied from any particular and previous writing,' he explained, he drew his ideas from 'the harmonizing sentiments of the day, whether expressed in letters, printed essays or in the elementary books of public right, as Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney, etc.' ...

"[In fact,] all the ideas found in the Declaration and much of the specific language, especially the grievances against George III, had already found expression in [Jefferson's] earlier writings.

"Recall the context. The Congress is being overwhelmed with mili­tary reports of imminent American defeat in New York and Canada. The full Congress is in session six days a week, and committees are meeting throughout the evenings. The obvious practical course for Jefferson to take was to rework his previous drafts on the same general theme. While it seems almost sacrilegious to suggest that the creative process that produced the Declaration was a cut-and-paste job, it strains credulity and common sense to the breaking point to believe that Jefferson did not have these items at his elbow and draw liberally from them when drafting the Declaration.

"His obvious preoccupation with the ongoing events at the Virginia convention, which was drafting the Virginia constitution at just this time, is also crucial to remember. Throughout late May and early June couriers moved back and forth between Williamsburg and Philadel­phia, carrying Jefferson's drafts for a new constitution to the conven­tion and reports on the debate there to the Continental Congress. On June 12 the Virginians unanimously adopted a preamble drafted by George Mason that contained these words: 'All men are created equally free and independent and have certain inherent and natural rights ... , among which are the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtain­ing happiness and safety.' The Pennsylvania Gazette published Mason's words the same day they were adopted in Williamsburg. Since Jeffer­son's version of the same thought was drafted sometime that following week, and since we know that he regarded the unfolding events in Vir­ginia as more significant than what was occurring in Philadelphia and that he was being kept abreast by courier, it also strains credulity to deny the influence of Mason's language on his own.

"While that explains the felicitous phrase 'pursuit of happiness,' which Mason himself could have picked up from several English and American sources, it does not explain Jefferson's much-debated dele­tion of 'property,' the conventional third right memorialized in Locke's Second Treatise on Government. He made that choice on his own. He was probably aware that Mason's language had generated spirited opposition from a segment of the planter class in Virginia who worried that it implied a repudiation of slavery; they insisted on an amend­ment that excluded slaves by adding the qualifying clause 'when they enter into a state of society.' All this suggests that Jefferson was proba­bly aware of the contradiction between his own version of the natural rights philosophy and the institution of slavery. By dropping any refer­ence to 'property' he blurred that contradiction. This helps answer the intriguing question of why no debate over the issue occurred in the Continental Congress, as it did in the Virginia convention. Perhaps the debate over the slave trade provision also served that purpose. ...

"[Another influence was] John Locke. Even during Jefferson's lifetime several commen­tators, usually intending to question his originality, noted that the doctrine of natural rights and the corollary endorsement of rightful revolution came straight out of Locke's Second Treatise. Richard Henry Lee, for example, claimed that Jefferson had merely 'copied from Locke's treatise on government.' Several conclusions followed natu­rally from the Lockean premise, the chief ones being that Jeffersonian thought was inherently liberal and individualistic and, despite the substitution of 'pursuit of happiness' for 'property,' fundamentally com­patible with America's emerging capitalistic mentality."



Joseph J. Ellis


American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson


Vintage Books


Copyright 1996 by Joseph J. Ellis


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