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“Because in later years Jefferson came to be the head of a party which sympathized with revolutionary France, there has come into existence a legendary view of him as a sort of French doctrinaire politician and disciple of Rousseau. Nothing could be more grotesquely absurd. Jefferson was broad enough to learn lessons from France, but he was no Frenchman in his politics; and we shall not understand him until we see in him simply the earnest, but coolheaded, representative of the rural English freeholders, that won Magna Charta and overthrew the usurpations of the Stuarts.”
Cornelius de Witt, after analyzing much of the historical and legal parts of the Declaration, says:
“The other principle was that of the rights of man. The Declaration of Independence contained a list of rights, such as were familiar to the colonists of England, but were only theories elsewhere. The success of the Revolution was, therefore, a shock to the system of privilege and of class exemptions from the common burdens, which had lasted since feudal times. The French Revolution of 1789 was an attempt to apply upon alien ground the principles of the American Revolution.” (Italics mine here and always.)
If there was any drawing of ideas either way, the French revolutionists drew from America and from the Declaration of Independence. Many of the French officers and soldiers went back to France with ideas, which, perhaps, would have been altogether unfamiliar to them — except for their sojourn in America. It may be a “glittering generality” - I don't knowbut I rather regard it as a golden actuality, founded upon everlasting truth, that men are “endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," if only the last be honest, pure, peaceable and fair.
Nor do I regard the latter part of that clause in the Constitution, which says that all powers not delegated
to the federal government are reserved to the states respectively "and to the people," as a "glittering generality." I do understand this clause reserving certain rights “to the people,” to mean just this class of natural and inalienable rights — antedating and superior to all governmental authority. In this class are freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of association, the right of petition, freedom from unreasonable search and arrest — in fact, everything in that vast realm where the individual is his own governor, and responsible only to God — a realm whose boundaries are located just where the exercise of his freedom begins to interfere with the right of others to preserve their life, or limb, or property honestly acquired. I count it a great happiness for the American people, that they did not base their claims altogether upon the rights of British subjects and upon the black-letter of the law books, but, fundamentally, upon the natural rights of man, and especially upon the right of any community, for a reason seeming necessary to that community, to change the form, or set aside the substance of a government, unjust and oppressive, and to establish in its stead one concordant with the public welfare, with human freedom, with equality of rights and opportunities, and equal administration of justice; a new government, “deriving its just powers from the consent of the governed." As Merriam well says: this theory that governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed “could hardly be called a theory at all.” It is the American "working hypothesis."
Not only did the individual have under it certain
rights, that were inherent and inalienable, but out of this grew e converso the fundamental principle, that the sovereignty of the people is inherent and inalienable, with regard to things not fundamentally individual, or, as Roger Williams said, things not “of the first table.”
Many people wonder why it was that so many people in the South, and especially in the border States, denied “the right of peaceful secession,” and said that there was no law for it, either statutory or constitutional, yet "went with their States." They stood upon “the right of revolution” — the right of a people of a State, if in their opinion the federal government became sectional, oppressive or unjust — or threatened to become SO — to throw it off; to “dissolve the ties that bound them to it,” as the phrase went, and, if opposed in this, to take the field in armed assertion of their right to be permitted "to go in peace,” as Sweden of late permitted Norway to go. This was the view of my own father. It is easily explicable, if you will remember, that these people, perhaps more than any other, were permeated with the political theory of the revolutionary period, although perhaps the most radical utterances of this theory earlier in our history had come from New England. Practically, of course, this sort of right rests ultimately on the acquiescence of others, or else upon the power of the community to assert it successfully with arms in its hands. But it is not too much to say that the more moderate expression of the idea — still radical, but not so extremely radical — contained in Jefferson's ringing words in the Declaration of Independence — was almost universally entertained in America in his time. In fact, most Revolution-time Tories denied only that the exigency had come to justify the exercise of “the right of revolution,” and either denied the grievances, or else asserted that grievances could be redressed more certainly and safely without resorting to so extreme a revolution as independence. A like opinion was that of many Union men in the South — some 300,000 of them in the Union armies — who fought and some died – acknowledging the right, and denying that the occasion justified its invocation. This more moderate expression contained in the Declaration is, in these words, familiar to all: “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 a new government, laying its foundations on such principles, and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness."
Pennsylvania, in her first constitution, asserted that “the community hath an indubitable, inalienable and indefeasible right to alter, reform or abolish government in such manner as shall by that community be judged most conducive to the common weal.” By the way, I like that old expression, “the common weal.” I once used it in the draft of a plank in a Democratic national platform and the “finishers," supposing that I had made a slip of the pen, changed it to “commonwealth!"
This very theory grew out of the doctrine of delegated powers — the doctrine that all governmental power is delegated by the people, in whom it ultimately resides; that there are rightfully no inherent governmental powers; that government is the grantee of powers, and not the
grantor of rights; that it is merely the agent, or servant, of the people; a trustee acting (if acting rightly) for the people, and not for itself. Our forefathers knew the danger of excess of government and were bent upon so simplifying, limiting and checking it, that it must forever remain a servant and could never become a master. My reading of history convinces me that most bad government has grown out of too much government. It is a sort of inherent characteristic of all government, as of all conscious organisms, yearly and almost daily, to take to itself more and more jurisdiction, to increase the force and weight and numbers of officialdom, until, after a while, the structure becomes topheavy, and must fall by its own weight; or else, upon the other hand — remaining administratively efficient - it holds the people in servile subjection. I know of no government, which has ever once been strong and then fallen (except where it has been conquered by outside force), that did not go to its ruin because it had become gradually, even insidiously, cumbersome, topheavy, unwieldy, complicated, almost incomprehensible; in a word, had assumed to itself more powers than could possibly be wisely administered by fallible men. Tom Jefferson did not attach a particle too much importance to the simplification of official life and governmental machinery. In him, as has been well said, was “crystallized the common American sentiment.”
The main difference between Jefferson and his opponents — as well as between him and the other extreme, Rousseau and his school — is this; both schools opposed by him contended that we gave up
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