Brion McClanahan

Additionally, Jefferson borrowed language from George Mason’s Virginia Declaration of Resolves in drafting the Declaration. Mason asserted that “all men are by nature equally free and independent, and have certain inherent rights…namely the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and maintaining happiness and safety.” Jefferson altered this in his original draft to “We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their creator with inherent and inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” By “equal,” Jefferson meant that all citizens or freeholders are, as Mason wrote, born “equally free and independent” under the law. The barons of England asserted their legal equality with the king in 1100 and 1215. Jefferson was not stating anything new. And Jefferson simply shortened Mason’s language—which he borrowed from John Locke’s 1689 publication Two Treatises on Civil Government¬—to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Everyone understood that Jefferson equated “happiness” with property and safety.

Another famous historian, Joseph Ellis, contends that Jefferson viewed government as an “alien force.” But Jefferson never used that term. He argued that the colonists had suffered patiently under “a long train of abuses and usurpations” and an “absolute Despotism.” Thus, it was their “right” and “duty, to throw off such Government and to provide new Guards for their future security.” This had been done countless times in human history, and as recently as 1689 in England. Jefferson did not think the English system of government was tyrannical, and in particular did not denounce Virginia colonial government, only the “present King of Great Britain,” George III, deserved condemnation. Government had an obligation, in his words, to protect the “safety and happiness” of the people. That is not an anti-government view, but of course, Jefferson believed there should be limits on government power and, most importantly, the size and scope of government.

The Declaration of Independence did not “create” the “United States.” Jefferson called it the “united States,” or simply the States united. Virginia and Maryland both separately declared their independence from Great Britain, with Virginia doing so over a month before the Declaration was ratified in the Continental Congress. The colonies became “FREE AND INDEPENDENT STATES.” Jefferson made a conscious decision to choose the word State. A State, in the 18th century, was a sovereign political entity. In the same document, Jefferson called Great Britain a “State.” Thus, Virginia, Massachusetts, New York, or any other American State, were equal to the mother country. They were not shires, parishes, counties, or provinces subservient to a “united States” government. The Declaration, then, is a decentralizing document, and the first governing document of the United States, the Articles of Confederation, reaffirmed that fact.

Most people mistake centralization as a “conservative” tendency. Human history proves otherwise. Centralization, whether political, cultural, or religious, does not conserve anything but the imperial traits of the centralizers, whether Marxists, theocratic zealots, or something else. Religions, cultures, customs, conventions, constitutions, economies, etc. are often ruined by the centralizers, and thus, centralization is always a “progressive” trend, not a conservative one, and typically the reaction to centralization is a conservative reaction, a push to preserve the culture, customs, or traditions of a particular people or place. Likewise, all empires have broken under the strain of conservative resistance to the imperial order. Jefferson and the men of the founding generation declared their independence to preserve English liberties. It was a decentralized, conservative movement.

Thinking of the Declaration and the War for Independence this way sheds light on who Americans are as a people. They are a naturally conservative group who love liberty and who are also inclined to preserve the traditions, customs, and cultures of their communities and families. Most men in the founding generation viewed “provincialism” as a badge of honor. They were Virginians, New Yorkers, Pennsylvanians, Massachusettians, and Marylanders first and foremost and Americans second. They defended the rights of their sister States, but did not want another State, foreign or domestic, interfering in the concerns of their local community. In the rush to force “our” will on other Americans (or on the world), we forget this lesson. The American tradition, as exemplified by the Declaration of Independence and the founding generation, favors limited, decentralized government that has as its only charge the protection of life, liberty, and property, and the maintenance of the cultures, customs, conventions, and constitutions of the States and local communities. The Declaration did not “create” new rights, it simply re-affirmed the old, and it is America’s conservative document.

Brion McClanahan

Brion McClanahan is the author of "The Founding Fathers Guide to the Constitution" and the forthcoming "9 Presidents Who Screwed Up America and 4 Who Tried to Save Her."