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with the passage of the resolution offered in the name and under the instructions of Virginia, by Richard Henry Lee.
This resolution, taken up for consideration by the Continental Congress on the 8th of June, was passed, as a part of the Declaration of Independence, upon July 4, 1776, so that, in a broader sense, Thomas Jefferson was not only one of the founders of this Government, but was the designer and architect of its foundation.
• After that date, there was an authorized legal government of these “United States" — however inefficient, however incongruous, and however pregnant with the seed of future dissolution.
This great Declaration was drawn by Thomas Jefferson, when he was thirty-three years of age. But, notwithstanding his comparative youth, John Fiske, one of the wisest and greatest of American historians, says that “of all the men of that time, there was perhaps none of wider culture, or keener political instincts. . . . He had always been passionately fond of study for its own sake, and to a very wide reading in history and in ancient and modern literature, he added no mean proficiency in mathematics and in physical science. . . . He was deeply interested in all the generous theories of the eighteenth century, concerning the rights of man and the perfectibility of human nature; and, like most of the contemporary philosophers, whom he admired, he was a sturdy foe to intolerance and priestcraft. He was, in his way, a much more profound thinker than Hamilton, though he had not such a constructive genius as the latter; as a political leader he was superior to any other man of his age; and his warm sympathies, his almost feminine tact, his mastery of the dominant political ideas of the time, and, above all, his unbounded faith in the common sense of the people and in their essential rectitude of purpose, served to give him one of the greatest and most commanding positions ever held by any personage in American history.”
I do not think that Mr. Fiske had any basis of historical fact for the statement that Jefferson was not such "a constructive genius," as Hamilton. As far as I know, or have thus far in my life been able to learn, Hamilton never constructed anything, except a scheme for tying the monied classes to the Government, and the government to them — a wedding knot that we have ever since been trying to undo. He attempted to construct a constitution, peculiarly unAmerican, and alien, then and now, to all the habits and thoughts of Americans. In this he totally failed. He did not construct even a financial system, but imitated, as nearly as anyone could dare, a system long before constructed in England. He did construct a system of bookkeeping in the Treasury Department, which has partially remained, as an involved curse, though Jefferson and Gallatin managed to rid us of much of it, by a process of simplification. But Fiske is exactly right when he emphasizes Jefferson's unbounded faith in the common sense of the people and in their "essential rectitude of purpose,” as his great and salient characteristic. It is through this characteristic that his influence upon American political institutions, administrations, and thought has been effectively permanent.
In a certain sense, neither Jefferson nor any other one man was the author of the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson was its draftsman, selected for the reasons which Fiske states, and selected moreover for the reason that the state papers drawn by him in Virginia had challenged admiration. But the Declaration of Independence itself was an evolution of revolutionary thought and expressed in language, certainly not mysterious to its readers, but consonant with their ripened convictions — the slow fruition of an intense struggle. Jefferson sought to express ideas, which in his mind and in the minds of his contemporaries were true and sound, in justification to the world of our action, and the more he confined himself to generally accepted ideas, the more wisely written — because the more influential — the document would be. The task was to "give the thought wings.” This he did — such wings as no other man of his day could have given it — such wings as no other political thing has ever yet had.
Those, who would try to trace back the so-called "glittering generalities” of the Declaration of Independence to French theorists and all that, are not people who are particularly learned, but are, on this subject, particularly ignorant. The English-speaking race, in that species of political philosophy, did not follow, but preceded France. If any doubter wants to satisfy himself upon that subject, let him read John Locke's “Treatises of Government,” Sidney's “Discourses on Government,” and John Milton's “Tenure of Kings and Magistrates," and his “Defense of the English People.”
Moreover, the fact remains, that if the English
sources had not existed, these convictions would have developed themselves necessarily from our conditions. Our institutions and our constitutions are the product of American experience, buttressed by such written authority and historical examples as we could find in the world. A part of that experience was, of course, our experience as a part of the English-speaking race, before we landed on these shores.
Jefferson here and always diametrically opposed Rousseau's central principle, that men on coming under government “voluntarily surrender” to “majorities” their "natural rights." Jefferson's'view was that these natural rights were inalienable, and therefore could not be parted with, even voluntarily, by any generation of men. Each generation was born to them. He asserted that government was formed to protect those rights, and, if need be, even against majorities, whose “rule to be right must be just." (See First Inaugural.)
It may be true that in other places, there was nowhere an actual, historically-recorded social contract, as the source of government. But there was in America. Yet the theory, that men are equal as regards their “natural rights,” and that the basis of all just government is voluntary, and contractual, was not all original with our English or American forefathers. It went back to the Roman law; being expressed in so many words in the Roman Digest (L. 17, 32), published three and a quarter centuries after Christ, and is asserted by Professor Otto Gierke to have been "an axiom of political theory from the end of the thirteenth century.” All this is found abundantly amplified in Mr. Merriam's “American Political Theories."
What was new in America was not the doctrine, nor theory as a basis for reasoning, but the object lesson of it. I cannot too often emphasize the thought, that this was due to the fact that we had our beginnings in the woods.
Merwin says of the Declaration of Independence that “both as a political and a literary document, it has stood the test of time. It has all the classic qualities of an oration by Demosthenes; and even in that passage in which it has been criticized — that, namely, which pronounced all men to be created equal — is true in a sense, the truth of which it will take a century or two yet to develop.”
In fact, a peculiar excellence of this and many other utterances of Mr. Jefferson is, that in them lie thoughts in advance of his time — germs destined to multiply and take possession. Here and there he puts in "a little leaven,” which, at the time, is hardly noticed, but will later “leaven the whole lump.”
It remained for Lincoln later on to take up what were called the “glittering generalities” of the Declaration of Independence, to muster them into practical political service, saying that they were meant “to declare the right, so that enforcement of it might follow, as soon as circumstances should permit," and that their expression had been “constantly looked to, constantly labored for, and even though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated, and thereby constantly spreading and deepening its influence, and augmenting the happiness and value of life to all people of all colors everywhere.”
As we have seen, Mr. Jefferson, before submitting his