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.
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.
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.
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.