On this, the most quintessential of American Holidays, I wish to delve a bit into the subject that is the Declaration of Independence. It was penned by the great Thomas Jefferson when he was but thirty three-years old. He was one of a committee of five that were formed to bring forth the reasons for our separation from Great Britain. The committee members were (in no particular order):
- Thomas Jefferson
- John Adams
- Benjamin Franklin
- Robert R. Livingston
- Roger Sherman
A vote was taken by the committee as to who would draft the statement and Jefferson came in first followed by Adams. An interesting footnote is that Adams presented Jefferson with his reasons as to why he ought to be the one to pen the document.
“Reason first—You are a Virginian, and a Virginian ought to appear at the head of this business. Reason second—I am obnoxious, suspected and unpopular. You are very much otherwise. Reason third—You can write ten times better than I can.”
Jefferson wrote the document in his residence where he occupied the entire second floor of a three story house owned by a bricklayer named Graff. It was said that after Jefferson’s death the baby infant of Graff was consistently told that he had often sat on a great man’s knee.
The writing itself took place in the parlor of Jefferson’s domicile on a desk that contained a small writing box that was of Jefferson’s own design. He had previously rented from a cabinet maker who constructed it from drawings made by Jefferson. During the last year of his life, he gave it to the husband of his favorite granddaughter, Ellen Randolph. He was to have said about the box, “It claims no merit of particular beauty. It is plain, neat, convenient and, taking no more room on the writing table than a moderate quarto volume, it displays itself sufficiently for any writing.” (Quarto volume is what we recognize as a middle-sized hardbound book.)
Jefferson never claimed originality of the idea of governance, “of the people, by the people and for the people,” instead he remarked that he was only distilling “common sense” on the subject. True the idea of democracy dates back to the Romans and the Greeks, but in Jefferson’s time, it was a very hot topic. Jefferson expounded on the idea of natural law and the nature of government.
In the second paragraph, Jefferson articulated an entire system of philosophy with his theory on that natural law and governance issue. It stems from property
rights and builds upon that. Jefferson did not separate property rights from political rights. For he felt that if one is denied property rights, then one cannot truly have political rights. Property is of course more than just what one owns, it goes to what one does to obtain property. Therefore property, as expressed by Jefferson is one’s individuality. If a government takes 40 or 50% (or more) of a person’s income (property), then that person is not truly free. For when half of one’s work goes to the government, it ceases to belong to that person.
This idea is expressed in what is possibly the most famous sentence in the American lexicon:
“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.”
But when presented to Congress, over twenty five percent of Jefferson’s original document was deleted. In what was at the time, a controversial move, Congress struck out what they viewed as a scathing indictment of the slave trade. Of course, Jefferson resented the changes and said that the passages were “struck out in complaisance to South Carolina and Georgia, who had never attempted to restrain the importation of slaves & who on the contrary still wished to continue it. Our northern brethren also, I believe, felt a little under those censures; for tho’ their people have very few slaves themselves, yet they have been pretty considerable carriers of them to others.” Congress also got rid of passages that conveyed a censure on the people of England. Jefferson’s reaction? “…the pusillanimous idea that we had friends in England worth keeping terms with still haunted the minds of many.”
At least Congress left the ideas of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. However, they did change it from “We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable…” to “We hold these truths to be self-evident…”
Lastly, Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence wasn’t really a declaration of independence at all. Rather it was an explanation of the actual declaration formally approved by Congress two days before, on July 2, 1776. That declaration was written by Richard Henry Lee, an active and respected patriot of Virginia’s congressional delegation.
It was titled: “A Declaration by the Representatives of the UNITED STATES OF AMERICA in General Congress assembled.” Therefore our actual declaration of independence wasn’t even called that. And ironically, John Adams was known to have said in a now-famous letter to his wife that future generations of Americans would celebrate America’s independence from England on July 2nd and it would become a great American holiday. Of course, as we all know and history has shown, we celebrate our independence on the date that Jefferson’s document explaining our reasoning behind our declaration of independence was announced, July 4th.
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 to 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. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shown that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government, and to provide new guards for their future security.