An Analysis of Declaration of Independence by Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jeffersons Declaration of Independence is a representative piece of Enlightenment writing that demonstrates the great influence that the work of John Locke must have had on him. Jefferson adapted Lockes concept of an inherent contract between the rulers and the ruled, explaining how rulers only rule through the consent of the governed. This means that they enjoy the right to change the terms of this contract. He used this idea of a contract to justify the revolt against King George III and the formation of an independent confederation of former colonies that became the United States. He further elaborated that slavery was either a violation of natural rights, possible only through the consent of the enslaved, or through a continuous state of war between ruler and ruled.[1] Jefferson does not refer to slavery explicitly but his acquisition and adaptation of another concept of Lockes demonstrates that slavery must have been on his mind.

Perhaps the most famous phrase of all in this Declaration is that all men are created equal and that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable Rights; that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. [2] This phrase reflects the ideas within Lockes Second Treatise of Government that there are certain natural rights that all people possess. Locke, however, conceived and defined these rights differently from the way Jefferson did. For Locke the natural rights were for life, liberty and property. It is very possible that it was because of the existence of slavery that Jefferson changed the last idea.

Tied up within the notion of slavery in the United States was the notion of property since slaves (human beings) were considered property in the United States (and in Jeffersons own Virginia and on his very own plantation). Jeffersons use of Lockes words reflect the Enlightenment thinking that many historians ascribe to the Founding Fathers of this country. He changed the words from property to pursuit of happiness reflecting a certain tension between his and Lockes notions of property. In the United States slavery was a reality of which Jefferson was intimately aware.

His leisure time to read such things as Locke resulted from the work of his slaves. However as a student of Locke, Jefferson must have been aware and must have realized that Lockes concept of property basically was that a person acquired property through his labor upon it and not by merit of it being given to him or by some paper title to the land.[3] By Lockes approximation, Jeffersons slaves would hold greater title to his land than he would by virtue of their work upon it. Jeffersons attempt to finesse his way around this issue was to simply remove the reference to a natural right of property and replace it with a natural right for the pursuit of happiness. Jefferson must have been hoping that those who would read, or have read to them, this Declaration would not be aware of the writings of Locke or the problems that Lockes formulations of natural property rights would have caused in a society in which property included human beings, and also in which those that owned the land were not necessarily those that worked the land.

Besides adapting and changing the words of Locke to suit his purposes, Jefferson also did something else, he set a precedent for the acquisition and modification of his own words and later generations of Americans like Frederick Douglass, Lucretia Mott and Martin Luther King, Jr. were able to adapt Jeffersons words for their own purposes. Lucretia Mott, an early feminist leader, explicitly adopted and adapted Jeffersons words to suit her goals, which were to establish that women were the equals of men and entitled to greater freedom then they had at that moment. In the Declaration of the Seneca Falls Convention, she stated that we hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women (italics mine) are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights.[4]

From this beginning, which draws upon Jeffersons words which were perhaps better known to the common people than were Lockes words when Jefferson used them, Mott proceeds to argue forcefully for the equality of women and to decry the injustices to which women in US society were subject. By using words that were common to all Americans (common because of the growing common school curriculum that was spreading across the country), Mott was able to make a stronger point and use the symbolism common to all to critique the society that shared that symbolism. A contemporary of Motts and an ally, Frederick Douglass, utilized a similar strategy when he made his speech four years later on the Fourth of July. The Fourth of July is, of course, the day on which the Declaration of Independence was read out before the crowds, the first day on which Jeffersons Declaration of natural rights was given voice and a mass audience. Douglass, as an AfricanAmerican, was just as aware of slavery as Jefferson was when he wrote the Declaration, but Douglass was far more dedicated to its eradication.

Douglass drew upon the symbolism of the day, symbolism shared across the country to condemn the nation for declaring on that day that all men are created equal while they continued to hold men in bondage, to hold them as property. He asked of those attending his speech, Would you have me argue that man is entitled to liberty? That he is the rightful owner of his own body? You have already declared it. What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July?[5] Douglass references the ideas celebrated on this holiday to show how Americans failed to live up to them. He asks how it is possible for a slave to celebrate the 4th of July, a day on which all men are created equal when the reality of their daily existence made a lie of this assertion.

He condemned and he cajoled his audience with evidence of their national hypocrisy and he challenged them to fulfill the promise of Jefferson’s words much as Jefferson exhorted his countrymen to support his revolution by borrowing Lockes ideas. Despite Douglass strong words the abolition of slavery did not bring those ideas any closer to fruition, and more than 100 years later Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. sat in a Birmingham jail because of his activities aimed at bringing about the equality Jefferson promised so long before. If Douglass was drawing on symbolic words some 70 or so years old, by the time King wrote his Letter from a Birmingham Jail these words were emblazoned in the consciousness of millions of US citizens from the Atlantic to the Pacific. King drew on these shared symbols for the same purpose as did Douglass and Mott, to challenge Americans to look at their society and recognize its flaws.

He draws upon the ideas of many writers and leaders, and figuring in this catalog of ideas is this: And Thomas Jefferson: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal[6] He goes on to explain that one day our leaders would [bring] our nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the founding fathers in the Declaration of Independence.[7] John Locke originated ideas of natural rights which were adopted and adapted by Thomas Jefferson. Jeffersons words have become the common knowledge about what our country is supposed to stand for and the further adoption and/or adaptation of these words by generations of civil rights leaders have done more to help fulfill the promise of those words than Jefferson himself might have desired.

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