Thursday, July 3, 2014

How T. J. Didn't Write the Declaration of Independence

Declaration of Independence with feather
Thomas Jefferson didn’t write the Declaration of Independence.
Well, to be fair, he did…sort of. He had a way with language, which the members of the Continental Congress knew and understood. It probably isn’t that surprising that he was the one chosen to write the King of England a letter…probably the most influential and far-reaching letters ever to be written…but, certainly not the first of its kind.
I’m not sure how many people have read, actually read, the Declaration of Independence. We’re all familiar with lines like, “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” and, “all men are created equal,” but the majority of the letter is a list of complaints. To be perfectly honest, it explains what the colonies were fighting about and why they were angry. The King of England had slowly been encroaching their basic sense of humanity; he was billeting his soldiers in their houses, stealing their property, taking away their ability to protect themselves. Each of these points was later reflected in the Bill of Rights.
George Mason
                 Getty images
But the Declaration of Independence was not the first piece of paper to have these ideas written on it. Probably the most immediate and interesting precursor was the Virginia Declaration of Rights. Written just a few weeks earlier, the Virginia Declaration of Rights was the work of George Mason and Thomas Ludwell Lee, a distant cousin of Robert E. Lee. The Declaration of Rights has a few lines in it that are worth noting like, “all men are by nature equally free and independent, and have certain inherent rights of which . . . they cannot deprive or divest their posterity; namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.” Admittedly, Thomas Jefferson said it rather more concisely, but he was not the author of the concepts, “all men are created equal,” or, “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”  
The Charter Oak where the Connecticut charter was hidden in 1662;
           Each American Colony had a charter, which George III ignored. 
Thomas Ludwell Lee’s younger brother, Richard Henry Lee, got in on the act when he declared in 1774, “Resolved: That these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States, that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved.” Jefferson echoed this almost word-for-word in the Declaration of Independence. Like Richard Henry Lee, Benjamin Franklin also had a hand in the wording; he went through after Jefferson was done and added in all the references to a Supreme Being. Thomas Jefferson, after all, was a deist and didn’t believe in one.
The format, as well, is nothing new. The English wrote countless charters and declarations, like the Petition of Right of 1628 or the Bill of Rights 1689. They should have understood what the Colonies
John of England Signs the Magna Carta
were about; after all they also had a great love for writing complaints down on a piece of paper, then waving it under the nose of the hated king and saying, “read this, or else…” King John, back in 1215, probably had similar sensations to George III, when he was staring down at the Magna Carta with irate nobles all around. The Magna Carta declared,We have granted to God, and by this our present Charter have confirmed, for Us and our Heirs for ever, that the Church of England shall be free, and shall have all her whole Rights and Liberties inviolable.” The wording may differ, but the sentiment is the same.  
But we can’t possibly enter into a discussion about declarations of independence without mentioning the Declaration of Arbroath. It was written to the Pope in 1320 and though it presently resides in France, the Declaration of Arbroath is the core of all Scotland ever stood for. Edward I claimed Scotland, and Robert the Bruce was begging the Pope to lift his excommunication so he could become king. The Scots wanted their freedom and they made it abundantly clear in the letter. It was probably the first document to express the belief that the rulership of the 
Declaration of Arbroath
country ought to be in the hands of the people rather than the king. The document was summed up with a last, desperate declaration,“...for, as long as but a hundred of us remain alive, never will we on any conditions be brought under English rule. It is in truth not for glory, nor riches, nor honours that we are fighting, but for freedom – for that alone, which no honest man gives up but with life itself.”
So, Thomas Jefferson didn’t write the Declaration of Independence. He never even claimed to have come up with the ideas it contained; he wasn’t the author, he was just the scribe. He was summing up on one large piece of paper what hundreds of people had fought and died for over the centuries before. He, like the fifty-four other signers of the Declaration of Independence, affixed his signature to his death warrant. Like the writers of the Virginia Declaration of Rights, the Magna Carta, or the Declaration of Arbroath, he knew that he had reached the end of the line. He was willing to stake everything; peace at any cost wasn’t enough…he wanted his freedom.
“And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.”

~ Rose and Psyche

1 comment:

  1. That bit from the Declaration of Arbroath was my favorite :)
    I didn't know that Franklin had added in all the parts about God to the Declaration of Independence; very interesting!