Law and Justice - Jefferson, Enlightenment, and America - 20.2 Influences on the Declaration

> > > > dr. Kyle harper: in many ways, thomas jefferson was an extraordinary american, but he can also be taken as the dominating figure behind the creation of the declaration of independence. He was its principal author and responsible in the main for it's content, both it's beautiful language but also it's substantive ideas.

The declaration was issued by the second continental congress and declared the colonies independent from the british crown. It's famous preamble states the basic political principles on which the colonists stake their claim, and then by far the largest part of the declaration is made up of a list of grievances against the british government that the colonists believed violated their rights and justified their revolution.

Looking back on the declaration decades later, thomas jefferson said that the declaration of independence was meant to express no new ideas. That it was written only to command assent, to express in plain language what were the ordinary beliefs of americans, and in an extraordinary statement, he says that all it's authority derived from its claim to express what he called the harmonizing sentiments of the day.

Whether expressed in newspapers or articles, or the elementary books of public right, such as aristotle, cicero, locke, sidney etc. So jefferson looking back at the declaration says that this wasn't some idea of genius that sprung out of my own mind, rather it was an expression of the american mind, and represented the harmonizing sentiments and when he said which particular thinkers it synthesized, he named aristotle, cicero, locke and sidney.

It's quite an extraordinary list, and it wasn't something that jefferson put together accidentally. Aristotle, now it's often said that jefferson didn't hold aristotle in high regard, and it's true that he wasn't fundamentally an aristotelian.

But nevertheless, jefferson recognized that the tradition of ancient political thought of classical political philosophy that had its origins in aristotle's teachings about virtue, and about the nature of human community, the idea of ancient republicanism embodied in aristotle's philosophy, was fundamentally part of the shared political culture of the colonists.

Cicero, the great roman republican who expressed the ideas of roman liberty, the absence of a king, for like the americans, the ancient romans had overthrown their king and established a republic and so the americans looked to the ancients as their example.

And cicero as the greatest of the ancient republican roman thinkers gave an expression of to the colonists of their idea of a republic. Locke, the 17th century english philosopher whose, " two treatises of government" and whose, " essay concerning human understanding" were fundamental to the development of the enlightenment.

Locke's theories of natural rights and his theory of the social contract, and his theory that people had a right to resist a tyrannical government were part of this shared political culture that jefferson referenced.

And sidney, algernon sidney, one of the great 17th century english republicans who was not only a writer and a politician, but also a martyr-- killed for his outspoken opposition to english tyranny. and for the colonists and indeed for the whigs of the 18th century, sidney became a kind of hero because he had died, because he'd been martyred for his beliefs.

And so jefferson invokes the synthesis: aristotle and cicero and locke and sidney, and that's the way to think of the political philosophy of the american revolution, as a synthesis.

The american colonists were deeply influenced by the broader 18th century english culture of political ideas. especially whig ideas, the liberal progressive english party that opposed the strong power of the crown and believed that parliament was the fundamental organ of political legitimacy in the british constitution.

Over the 1760s and the 1770s, tensions continuously grew between the american colonists and the british crown over the nature, over the limits of british authority over the colonies. Over the ability of the british king to tax the american colonists, and as the colonies developed an ideology of resistance they drew upon an eclectic mix of sources, what jefferson refers to as a synthesis.

And this synthesis includes both the ancient tradition of republicanism that goes back to the greeks and especially to the romans, and tradition of republicanism that places enormous emphasis on the self-governing community of free men who have the power to rule themselves through their political bodies. who are free because they don't have a king, who are free because they live in a free state, who place the republic, the public thing, the commonwealth above their private interests. and the colonists come to believe when they revolt against the king that they are heirs to an ancient tradition of republicanism, that they are reviving the idea of a community of free men who live virtuously.

And they draw deeply from this ancient well that they found, so familiar in the works of cicero, livy, plutarch, aristotle.

The idea that freedom requires virtue and for the colonists this freedom was a kind of independence, a kind of morality that would separate them out, and the kind of world that they were creating, from the monarchical society of great britain.

So republicanism is one of the strands of this synthesis that was reborn in the renaissance, that is expressed powerfully in 17th-century england and that becomes part of whig ideology, especially the radical whig ideology of the 18th century and that would come to play a prominent part in american politics in the revolution.

So too, the political philosophy of john locke represents a strand of this jeffersonian synthesis. Locke's idea that the state is a creation and a social contract among naturally free, naturally rights-bearing individuals, who have a natural right to life, liberty, and property and who create a sovereign government, a state to secure those rights. and that if a state becomes destructive of those ends, that it's a revocable contract. this is one of the great differences between hobbes and locke.

There's so many fundamental similarities between their political philosophies, but hobbes imagines a sovereign that's created in an act of agreement by people in a state of nature that is then irrevocable, because to violate the law of the sovereign is unjust.

Locke on the other hand sees this as a contract that must be continually lived up to. People give their consent to it and the government must in turn live up to its side of the bargain.

It must secure the rights of individuals their rights to life, liberty, and property. And locke articulates a theory of rebellion that becomes fundamentally important in the 18th century, and especially in the american revolution and the declaration of independence that speaks of revolution in the specifically lockean sense of a revolt against a tyrannical king.

And so lockean political thought with its ideas of natural rights and its idea of revolution are part of the synthesis that jefferson speaks of. And thirdly, the constitutional tradition.

We'll talk in more detail about the nature of constitutional thinking, the british constitution, but the colonists thought of themselves first and foremost as englishmen, as free subjects of the british crown who were entitled to all of the rights of a british citizen.

And they believe deeply in the legal and constitutional order of great britain, and they believed that this constitutional tradition was being violated by the british king, in his actions.

As part of this synthesis they believed that their constitutional rights were being violated by the british king. Part of the british constitution was the power of the parliament to tax.

The colonists especially ones like thomas jefferson believed that they held their property as free men, but that this property could be taken by the king only through the consent of parliament.

And there was an ideology which said that parliament alone could tax because parliament represented the people. It represented especially the free landholders, and so when parliament voted to tax it was, in effect, a voluntary gift.

It was a consensual session, gift of property. And so only parliament have the right to intrude on the property ownership of people with property by giving this free gift to the crown.

And as the british government progressively sought to assert more rights, more control over the colonists, especially rights to tax, this sent the colonists into a fury because they believed that they weren't adequately represented by parliament.

And so british legal and constitutional theorists articulated a theory of virtual representation, which said that in fact the colonists were represented in parliament because they were a part of the body of the english people, but the colonists say this is bogus.

Virtual representation does not in fact exist, and we do not voluntarily give this property to the king. And so they believed that the crown's actions were a violation of the constitutional order, grounded in their rights as free men and as property holders, and so it's this synthesis of republican ideas, of lockean ideas and of the english constitutional order that become a firestorm in the 1770s and provoke the american colonists into revolt.

And it would be a revolution that would be girded with an ideological justification, with a legal and philosophical defense of their revolt unlike any that had existed in all of history, and it would cause the american founding to become the quintessential act of enlightenment state formation..

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