The Second Continental Congress named the Committee of the Five, a group who drafted what would become the United States Declaration of Independence. This committee operated from June 11, 1776, until July 5, 1776, the day on which the Declaration was published, and was composed of John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Robert Livingston, and Roger Sherman.
As with most committee work, the lion’s share of the task fell to one man: Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson was brilliant to be sure, and that surely had something to do with his being saddled with authorship of the Declaration. He was also young, only 33 years old at the time. And that clearly had a lot to do with it too.
What emerged from his pen was a document that would, in short order, change the world.
We typically think of Jefferson inventing the Declaration from whole cloth, but this is not how things went. As he began the high-minded opening of the document — the part most people are most familiar with — he borrowed liberally from Virginia’s Declaration of Rights written by George Mason. It wasn’t a contest. Jefferson wasn’t trying to be unique; he was trying to be right. And he captured the American mind perfectly when he wrote:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
No sooner had he offered what is likely the most philosophically polished political statement of all time than he switched gears entirely in order to offer a protracted constitutional argument, wherein he assessed the colonial perspective of the nature of the British Constitution, which was, suffice to say, an animal of an entirely different stripe than the British understanding of their own constitution. Jefferson railed away at the English and their unwillingness to remain a nation of laws.
And only after this did he allow himself to conclude the Declaration with some of the most high-minded political rhetoric of all time.
We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, 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; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. 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.
When was the last time a politician of any description used the phrase “sacred honor” with a straight face?
So we go from a statement of philosophical truth, to constitutional analysis, to sacred political honor, in one document written by a 33-year-old man on the eve of the unlikeliest of revolutions.
But again, Jefferson wasn’t trying to be unique; he was trying to be right. How do we know? He told us. Or more precisely, he told Henry Lee in 1825.
With respect to our rights and the acts of the British government contravening those rights, there was but one opinion on this side of the water. All American whigs thought alike on these subjects. When forced therefore to resort to arms for redress, an appeal to the tribunal of the world was deemed proper for our justification. This was the object of the Declaration of Independance. not to find out new principles, or new arguments, never before thought of, not merely to say things which had never been said before; but to place before mankind the common sense of the subject; [. . .] terms so plain and firm, as to command their assent, and to justify ourselves in the independant stand we [. . .] compelled to take. Neither aiming at originality of principle or sentiment, nor yet copied from any particular and previous writing, it was intended to be an expression of the American mind, and to give to that expression the proper tone and spirit called for by the occasion. All its authority rests then on the harmonising sentiments of the day, whether expressed, in conversations, in letters, printed essays or in the elementary books of public right, as Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney Etc.
The harmonizing sentiments of the day provided the foundation for the Declaration of Independence, and thus the nation itself.
So we are left with one important question in our own time: What are the harmonizing sentiments of our day?