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“UPON THE SHOULDERS OF GIANTS”:

THOMAS JEFFERSON AND THE DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE

Declaration of Independence



“UPON THE SHOULDERS OF GIANTS”: THOMAS JEFFERSON AND THE DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE

This is “My Constitution,” a podcast from the Center for C-SPAN Scholarship & Engagement at Purdue University. In this podcast, we’ll discuss the Declaration of Independence.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

In early 1675, the famous English scientist, Sir Isaac Newton, responsible for developing the principles of modern physics, wrote, “If I have seen further, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.” The sentence has gone down in history. Scholars argue that Newton was noting that his success as a scientist profited from the work of his predecessors.

Nearly a century and a half later, Thomas Jefferson, the principal author of the Declaration of Independence, sent a letter to another member of the founding generation, James Madison. In that letter, Jefferson said that he didn’t know specifically where his ideas for the Declaration of Independence came from. He also remarked, “I did not consider it as any part of my charge to invent new ideas altogether, and to offer no sentiment which had ever been expressed before.”

While more cryptic than Newton, Jefferson’s words admit an important truth. The Declaration of Independence was a document with many authors. In penning the Declaration, Jefferson had also stood “upon the shoulders of giants.”

Before we look at the Declaration of Independence, let’s spend a few moments discussing American-British relations in the years before the Declaration was signed.

Here’s the context: The British government’s attempt to raise money and assert control in the colonies led significant numbers of Americans in the 1760s and 70s to mobilize in opposition to British rule. Driven by the sentiment that taxes should only be imposed by their own elected representatives, a number of Americans opposed British policies such as the Stamp Act and the Townshend Duties.

The Stamp Act placed a tax on a variety of paper products. It was met by opposition as varied as the scribblings of pamphleteers, and broadsides in newspapers. It was also met by the creation of a body called the Stamp Act Congress, with representatives from a number of colonies. Opposition to the Townshend Duties, which placed tariffs on a number of imports, took a largely similar form. Both protest movements were accompanied by violence. Other thorns in the side of the colonists were the passage of the Tea Act of 1773 and the so-called Coercive Acts of 1774.

The Tea Act simultaneously gave the East India Company a monopoly over the importation of tea to America and the right to name which merchants would be allowed to sell tea. The Coercive Acts attempted to reassert British control in Boston and Massachusetts. In addition to closing Boston’s port, the Acts increased the power of the royal governor, appointed by the King, and limited the ability of the people to assemble. The Acts also undercut the ability of local authorities to prosecute royal officials who had committed capital crimes. They also gave the governor the power to house troops in private property.

How did the colonists respond to these actions? The best-known response to the Tea Act was the Boston Tea Party in 1773, in which thousands of pounds of tea were dumped into Boston Harbor. The Coercive Acts were accompanied by the creation of political organizations, both local and national, like the Continental Congress. These organizations further undercut imperial authority.

Twelve colonies were represented at the First Continental Congress that met in late 1774. The Congress condemned the Coercive Acts. It did not, however, endorse separation from Great Britain. Here’s historian Roger Moss:

It was important that they were meeting each other because firebrands that would be leaders in the revolution, such as the Adams’ from Massachusetts, the Virginians like Patrick Henry and Thomas Jefferson, from Pennsylvania, people like Benjamin Franklin. These people may have known each other from their writing, but most of them hadn't ever actually been in the same room with each other. And perhaps one of the most remarkable moments in that convention came from Patrick Henry. Now you all remember Patrick Henry for his “Give Me Liberty or Give me Death.” But even more significant was his remark made here in the earlier days when he looked around the room and he said, “Gentlemen, we are no longer from Massachusetts. We are no longer from Pennsylvania. We no longer are from Virginia. We are all Americans.”

Now, back to the Declaration of Independence. 1775 saw fighting at Lexington and Concord, the carnage of Bunker Hill, and British victory at Quebec. Clearly, shots had been fired many months before the ink was dry on the Declaration of Independence. The Declaration itself can be unpacked in a number of ways. Harvard University political theorist Danielle Allen describes it this way:

It is the voice of a group of people who have surveyed their circumstances, diagnosed them, and decided to change their lives and taking the time to explain themselves to the world. That's it. Diagnosis; prescription; justification.

Let’s look at Jefferson’s work in a little more detail.

The Declaration’s tone in its first paragraph is a polite one. Rather than simply walking away from its relationship with Great Britain without explanation, the signatories to the document argue that it is necessary for them to discuss their reasons for independence. In the paragraph that follows, we are introduced to the origins and purpose of government.

Jefferson argued that the genesis of government is to be found in consent. Those who consent to the creation of government possess important unalienable rights. These rights include, but are not limited to, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The purpose of government is to protect these important rights. Failure to do so, shatters the compact between the government and the governed. When that happens, the governed have the right to rebel, to overthrow the government. There was no doubt at whom Jefferson was pointing the finger. It accuses George III, the British King, of being a tyrant and declares Americans have the right to overthrow British rule.

Many of the sentences in the next, and longest, part of Jefferson’s Declaration, begin with the phrase, “He has.” Here are a few examples:

“He has refused his assent to the laws most wholesome and necessary for the public good. He has forbidden his governors to pass laws of immediate and pressing importance unless suspended in their operation till his assent should be obtained, and when so, suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.”

Each of these sentences contain, what Jefferson calls, “facts” concerning the treatment the colonists faced at the hands of the King. The Declaration follows this laundry list with a number of paragraphs lamenting the British government’s refusal to address the colonists’ concerns. The final paragraph of the document declares that the colonies are now “Free and Independent States.”

In order to truly understand the Declaration of Independence, it’s necessary to understand its author, Thomas Jefferson. Born in Shadwell, Virginia in 1743, Thomas Jefferson was a lawyer and a member of the Virginia House of Burgesses. He became a delegate to the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia in 1775 only because another member of the Virginia delegation returned home. He also owned slaves. Historian Joseph Ellis describes Jefferson this way:

Thomas Jefferson, probably the most intellectually sophisticated, the most resonant in both senses—meaning he is the greatest, the most lyrical, the author of the most famous words in American history: “We hold these truths to be self-evident,” and also the most racist and the most explicitly so racist—and the most duplicitous. None of the political shenanigans that we're watching in our world today would at all surprise Jefferson.

Writing the Declaration of Independence was seen as a relatively unimportant task at the time. Jefferson was cajoled into remaining in Philadelphia, even though he was eager to return home to Monticello.

Earlier in this podcast, we discussed part of a letter written by Jefferson to James Madison in 1823 in which he spoke of the influence of others on the writing of the Declaration. Exactly whose ideas influenced the writing of the Declaration of Independence? Upon whose shoulders did Jefferson stand?

Jefferson was influenced by the ideas of a number of individuals. The Library of Congress, for example, discusses no less than eight sources that likely shaped Jefferson’s thinking. Three of the likely sources were composed by Jefferson himself. Other influences included Scottish philosopher, Henry Home, and contemporaries like George Mason, George Washington, and Thomas Paine.

Let’s look at one of those documents, George Mason’s Virginia Declaration of Rights. The Declaration of Rights includes a discussion of consent and equality. It also includes a discussion of inherent natural rights, rights we simply possess as human beings. Mason’s list of natural rights included life and liberty. He stresses the importance of property ownership, the importance of happiness, and the importance of security. In Jefferson’s more famous Declaration, and in much more familiar language, he writes of “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Jefferson was also influenced by the work of an English thinker named John Locke. Born in 1632, Locke’s intellectual fingerprints are all over the Declaration of Independence. His work called “Two Treatises on Government” includes a discussion of consent and equality. He also describes our natural rights, in Locke’s case it’s life, liberty, and property, and our right to rebel. Some of the language in the Declaration of Independence even mirrors Locke’s language. Jefferson’s Declaration was revised before the delegates to the Second Continental Congress agreed to send it to be published on July 4, 1776. John Adams and Benjamin Franklin read through an early draft. The memorable phrase, “self-evident truths,” belonged to Adams and Franklin, not Jefferson. Most significantly, and much to his dismay, Jefferson’s angry drumbeat against George III was pared down. Here’s philanthropist David Rubenstein, of the Carlyle Group, discussing Jefferson’s reaction.

About 35 percent of what he wrote was taken out. He later said it was mutilated, and he was very upset by it. In fact, for nine years, he refused to admit that he was the principal author of it, because he thought that the draft that had come out of the Congress was worse than his and in fact, like many…maybe I would have done it, maybe some of you would have done it…he later wrote to his friends and said, “By the way, don't you think this Congress did a terrible job? Here's my draft. Here's what they did. Don't you think my draft is better?” But, at the time he was so upset that when they made the changes, he didn't really want to admit to it.

Our journey back to eighteenth century Philadelphia, has focused on some of the context between the break between the Colonies and Great Britain. We’ve spent time considering the Declaration of Independence and looked at some of the individuals who helped shape Jefferson’s document. Thomas Jefferson wrote his own epitaph. It reads, in part, “Author of the Declaration of American Independence.” What the epitaph does not tell us is which version of the Declaration he is referring to. Nor does it note that he stood “upon the shoulders of giants” when he wrote his masterwork in the summer of 1776.

Further information on some of the issues discussed in this program, including questions to ponder, our sources, and additional clips from the C-SPAN Archives, can be found on the website of the Center for C-SPAN Scholarship & Engagement. The address is cla.purdue.edu/cspan. The Center is affiliated with the Brian Lamb School of Communication at Purdue University.

PODCAST GOAL

To acquaint the student with the ideas found in the Declaration of Independence and with the individuals who contributed to the development of the document.

QUESTIONS TO PONDER

  1. In an article he wrote on the Founders, historian H. W. Brands noted that views of the Founding generation have not always been positive. He also argued that the reverence we show their work can handcuff our attempts to solve some of society’s biggest problems. What do you think of this argument? Have your views of Jefferson and the Declaration changed as a result of some of the points made in this podcast? Additional information on this topic can be found by visiting https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2003/09/founders-chic/302773/. The article is called “Founders Chic: Our Reverence for the Fathers Has Gotten Out of Hand.” It was published in The Atlantic.
  1. One criticism of Joseph Ellis’s comments on Thomas Jefferson (found in this podcast) is that it is not appropriate to judge individuals in the past through the lens of the present. In brief, it’s argued that because our values are sometimes different than the values held by individuals from the past that we should pause before launching a strong critique of their views and behavior. What do you think of this argument?
  1. Given the important role that the work of others played in creating the Declaration of Independence, do you think it should still be called “Jefferson’s document?”

OUR SOURCES

BBC world service. (n.d.). Learning English, moving words. (n.d.). BBC. https://www.bbc.co.uk/worldservice/learningenglish/movingwords/shortlist/newton.shtml

Brown, G., McLean, I., & McMillan, A. (2018). Jefferson, Thomas. A Concise Oxford Dictionary of Politics and International Relations. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press. https://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/acref/9780199670840.001.0001/acref-9780199670840-e-683

Creating the United States creating the Declaration of Independence. (n.d.). Library of Congress. www.loc.gov/exhibits/creating-the-united-states/interactives/declaration-of-independence/overview.html

Dunn, J. (2003). Life. John Locke: A very short introduction, (p. 28). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Ellis, J. R. (1996). American Sphinx: The character of Thomas Jefferson (pp. 27-75), New York City, NY: VINTAGE Books.

Fiorina, M.P., Peterson, P. E., Johnson, B., & Mayer, W. G. (2011). America’s new democracy (6th ed., pp. 23-45). New York City, NY: Pearson.

Fiorina, M. P., Peterson P. E., Johnson, B., & Mayer, W. G. (2011). The new American democracy (7th ed., pp. 29-61). New York City, NY: Pearson.

Jefferson's gravestone. (n.d.). Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia. www.monticello.org/site/research-and-collections/jeffersons-gravestone

Mervin, D. (2018). Declaration of Independence. A Concise Oxford Dictionary of Politics and

and International Relations. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press. https://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/acref/9780199670840.001.0001/acref-9780199670840-e-321

Moseley, A. (n.d.). John Locke: Political philosophy. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. www.iep.utm.edu/locke-po/

Stern, K. D. (1996). John Locke and the Declaration of Independence. Journal of the American Bar Association vol. 15. https://engagedscholarship.csuohio.edu/clevstlrev/vol15/iss1/19/

Thomas Jefferson legacy. (2000). Library of Congress. www.loc.gov/exhibits/jefferson/jeffleg.html

ADDITIONAL CLIPS AND PROGRAMS FROM THE C-SPAN ARCHIVES