Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1825 that he intended the Declaration of Independence to be “an expression of the American mind, and to give to that expression the proper tone and spirit called for by the occasion.” Yet, he did not propose the Declaration should “find out new principles, or new arguments, never before thought of….” The last statement is the clearest articulation of what Jefferson and other members of the founding generation thought of the Declaration. It was a restatement of the rights of Englishmen, modeled in large part by previous works of English and American law. The Declaration was not a radical document or a deviation from accepted constitutional norms, as the famous historian Gordon Wood suggests. But the idea that Jefferson and other founders would be modern liberals persists, and that is why Barack Obama can argue with a straight face that he is following the founding documents of the United States. Such thinking needs a “radical” correction, and a better understanding of the Declaration is the key.
In 1100, King Henry I of England agreed to restrictions on his power through the Charter of Liberties. The English barons rejected absolute authority and sought to preserve traditional decentralized “government.” Just over one hundred years later, King John was forced again by the English nobles to sign the Magna Charta. The “Great Charter,” as it is known in English, declared that the king was not above the law—making him essentially equal to the nobles—and it resisted the trend toward centralization in England. Though on the books, the Magna Charta was often ignored by more powerful English monarchs, but several of its provisions became the basis of English common law, most notably the writ of habeas corpus.
When England erupted in civil war in the seventeenth century, the Parliament asserted its authority, and by 1688 had become the driving force behind English law and policy. When King James II was expelled from England in 1688, the Parliament forced the incoming monarch, William of Orange, to sign the English Bill of Rights. It condemned James II for violating the rights of Englishmen, what the Parliament called the “laws and liberties of this kingdom,” and placed restrictions on the powers of the monarch. Jefferson essentially copied the form of the English Bill of Rights in writing the Declaration. Thus, Jefferson’s indictment of King George III was not a radical departure from accepted English practices. He was following English tradition, which in turn he adapted to American circumstances. This formed the American tradition, a conservative rather than radical tradition.