Hy In A Narrow Sense Was Jefferson

’s Declaration O Essay, Research Paper

Ilya KostyukovskyMrs. RussoAP American History I29 October 1998Why in a Narrow Sense Was Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence Unnecessary and Why in a Broad Sense Was It So Necessary? In June 1776 a 33-year-old Virginian, working in a room rented from a bricklayer, wrote-in the words of Moses CoitTaylor-a “passionate chant of human freedom whose influence has been as momentous as that of any other single human creation” (Aptheker 100). He made no claim to originality. On the contrary he strove to present the “common sense of the matter”; to convey, as he said, the “American mind.” In a brief declaration he stated the essential facts driving the colonists to separation and the theory of government which, to those colonists, was so universally held to appear “self-evident.” The Americans in their “manifesto of revolution” begin by declaring that “a decent respect to the opinion of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel” them to their eventful actions. This itself is new and reflects the essence of the Declaration’s political philosophy-the supremacy of the people. Believing in this supremacy and staking their lives on an attempt to establish it, they naturally are impelled to explain their cause and their motivation to all of the people of the world. The declaration of those causes and grievances was absolutely revolutionary (Bailyn 65-67). As Boorstin says:For the first time in history men did not revolt blindly. They revolted with their ideas, which they so eloquently proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence (Boorstin 58). The most important word in the introduction is “necessary,” which in the eighteenth century carried strongly deterministic overtones. To say an act was necessary implied that it was determined by natural laws and was beyond the control of any human creation. Characterizing the Revolution as necessary suggested that it was not merely preferable, defensible, or justifiable. It was as inescapable, as inevitable, as unavoidable within the course of human events as the motions of the tides or the changing of the seasons within the course of natural events (Becker 149-153). Investing the Revolution with connotations of necessity was particularly important because, according to the law of nations, recourse to war was lawful only when it became “necessary”; only when friendly negotiation had failed and there were no other alternatives for settling the differences between two states. Indeed, the notion of necessity was so important that in addition to appearing in the introduction of the Declaration, it was invoked twice more at crucial junctures in the rest of the text and appeared frequently in other congressional papers after July 4, 1776 (Malone 41, 43).Labeling the Americans “one people” and the British “another” was also performed several important strategic functions within the Declaration. First, because two alien peoples cannot be made one, it reinforced the notion that breaking the “political bands” with England was a necessary step in the course of human events. America and England were already separated by the more basic fact that they had become two different peoples. The gulf between them was much more than political; it was intellectual, social, moral, cultural and therefore, according to the principles of nature, could not be repaired (Goff 135-138, 140).Second, once it was established that Americans and Englishmen were two distinct peoples, the conflict between them was less likely to be seen as a civil war. The Continental Congress knew America could not withstand Britain’s military might without foreign assistance. However, it also knew America could not receive assistance as long as the colonies were fighting a civil war as part of the British empire. To help the colonies would constitute interference in Great Britain’s internal affairs. The crucial factor in opening the way for foreign aid was the act of declaring independence (Bailyn 72-73). However, by defining America and England as two separate peoples, the Declaration reinforced the perception that the conflict was not a civil war; thereby, as Congress noted in its debates on independence, making it more “consistent with European delicacy for European powers to treat with us, or even to receive an Ambassador” (74).Third, defining the Americans as a separate people in the introduction eased the task of invoking the right of revolution in the preamble. That right, according to eighteenth-century revolutionary principles, could be invoked only in the most dire of circumstances-when “resistance was absolutely necessary in order to preserve the nation from slavery, misery, and ruin”- and then only by “the Body of the People.” If America and Great Britain were seen as one people, Congress could not justify revolution against the British government for the simple reason that the body of the people, of which the Americans would be only one part, did not support the American cause. For America to move against the government in such circumstances would not be a justifiable act of resistance but “a sort of Sedition, Tumult, and War . . . aiming only at the satisfaction of private Lust, without regard to the public Good” (Aptheker 104). By defining the Americans as a separate people, Congress could more readily satisfy the requirement for invoking the right of revolution that “the whole Body of Subjects” rise up against the government “to rescue themselves from the most violent and illegal oppressions” (105-107).Like the introduction, the next section of the Declaration, the preamble, is universal in tone and scope. It contains no explicit reference to the British-American conflict, but outlines a general philosophy of government that makes revolution justifiable and even commendable (Becker 154-155).The major premise in the argument, that “whenever government deliberately sought to reduce the people under absolute despotism, the people had a right, indeed a duty, to alter or abolish that form of government and to create new guards for their future security” (Becker 155), allowed Jefferson and the Congress to reason from self-evident principles of government accepted by almost all eighteenth-century readers of the Declaration. However, since virtually everyone agreed that people had a right to overthrow a tyrannical ruler when all other remedies had failed, the crucial question in July 1776 was whether the necessary conditions for revolution existed in the colonies. Congress answered this question with a sustained attack on George III, which comprises almost two-thirds of the text (156).The long list of charges against George III, intended to prove that the King was a tyrant, does not contain an accurate description of the conduct of the British ruler. George III was not the alleged absolute ogre depicted by the long list of his crimes. Criticism has been directed against the political theory of Jefferson and his colleagues. It has quite properly been asserted that their opinion of the relations between America and Britain conflicted, at least in part, with the facts of history after 1607, the date of the first permanent English settlement in America in Jamestown and the beginning of Britain’s reign over the colonies (Alden 83).

Most of the charges were in fact hardly under the jurisdiction of the king. For example, the king was accused of “quartering large bodies of armed troops among the colonists, cutting off their trade with all parts of the world, imposing taxes without their consent, plundering their seas, ravaging their coasts, burning their towns, and destroying the lives of their people.” Although the king did determine somewhat the policy of his empire, he could not be held accountable for the aforesaid charges. By 1776 parliament and its leader Lord North, the Prime Minister of Britain, had fully assumed control of the British government. Indeed, it was the British Parliament that established the policy of taxation and the limitation of American commerce which so greatly angered the colonists. Certainly the king could not directly “plunder their seas” or “destroy their costs” (Alden 84-85).The king, it would seem, had no influence on the matter. However, as Carl Becker states:The king was the symbol of Britain’s tyranny. Although he himself did not influence American policy, it was he who was the head of the British Empire. If King George III was to be expected to be commended for his benevolence, why then could he not be accused for conducting such an oppressive policy? (Becker 157) Thus although the charges against the king, allegations of his being the primary conspirator of American liberty, may superficially seem to be unnecessary and, quite frankly, absurd, they were very much needed to create a symbolic enemy of the revolutionists’ cause. Every movement has its scapegoat; the American Revolution’s was King George III (Goff 141). Therefore, the few unnecessary components of the Declaration do not lay in the accusation of the king, but rather in the actual writing of the document. The fifty-six signers of the Declaration understood why they desired separation from Britain. Although Britain did not concur with the wishes of the revolutionists, she, too, sensed the inevitability of her colony’s separating (Malone 44). The Declaration of Independence was therefore intended for the world, nations such as France, Holland, and Russia, to see on what basis the colonies would even consider the notion of separating from the mightiest power on earth. At a time when freedom was not even an issue for common people in nations such as Russia, a document was published that summarized, indeed encouraged, the English traditions of natural law-life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness-like no other (Malone 45). The Declaration may have been unnecessary for Americans, whose beliefs were a reflection of the convictions of their English brothers. Englishmen were accustomed to more freedom than any other nation and a representative government ever since the Magna Carta of 1215 stipulated that the king had to conform to a set of laws like everybody else. However, even at the end of the eighteenth century, not all of the people of the world were granted such freedom. People could be killed by government officials for no reason; trial by jury was unheard-of in most nations (Bailyn 74). Therefore, the writers of the Declaration of Independence composed the document as an inspiration to all the oppressed peoples of the world. A symbol of democracy, the Declaration may have been unnecessary for the already-democratic Americans. However, it presented a vision which the signers of the document hoped would be seen by the rest of the world (Bailyn 74-75). The Declaration of Independence, in fact, did not assist in instituting innovative concepts in any way in America. Boorstin says that the colonists “were fighting not so much to establish new rights as to preserve old ones” and that actually it was “Parliament that had been revolutionary by exercising a power for which there was no warrant in English constitutional precedent” (Boorstin 93). Most of all, the Declaration was necessary to spark the patriot cause. The document offered a precise goal, the attainment of which would presumably bring wealth to all happiness to the individual (Aptheker 101). Its three basic principles- (1) human beings, essentially equal in attributes, needs, obligations and desires, possess basic rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, (2) to obtain these rights men create governments, and (3) governments destructive of those rights are tyrannical and should be abolished-provided essential motives because of which the Revolution was to be fought (Alden 86-87). It was true that the colonists had insisted that they were seeking “the rights of Englishmen,” but insisting upon this in the face of rulers who declared that colonists did not have such rights was significant, necessary, and revolutionary; though the rights themselves may not have been new. Moreover, insisting upon the exercise of old rights under new conditions may also be revolutionary. It was exactly because the colonists discovered that under the new conditions they would not be granted the rights of Englishmen, and would be forbidden those rights by force and violence, that they came to see that to have the rights of Englishmen the had to cease to be Englishmen. Thus, as early as September 6, 1769, it was written in a leading article in the Georgia Gazette, “If we are no longer to be allowed the rights of Britons, we MUST be Americans” (Aptheker 107). They had to become what in fact they were-Americans. For this purpose they adopted their Declaration of Independence, indeed a revolutionary act.

Alden, John Richard. The American Revolution: 1775-1783. New York: Harper and Row, 1954.Aptheker, Herbert. The American Revolution: 1763-1783. New York: International Publishers, 1960.Bailyn, Bernard. The Origins of Independence. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1968.Becker, Carl L. The Declaration of Independence: A Study in the History of Political Ideas. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1942.Boorstin, Daniel J. The Genius of American Politics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1953.Goff, Frederick, R. The John Dunlap Broadside: The First Printing of the Declaration of Independence. Washington, DC: Library of Congress, 1976.Malone, Dumas. The Story of the Declaration of Independence. New York: Oxford University Press, 1954.


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