An Expression of the American Mind Introduction to Declaration of Independence
The Declaration of Independence is a unique document in world history. It is the Declaration that provides the foundation for our form of government. In it we find the primary principles on which the Constitution and the Bill of Rights are based, natural rights and the sovereignty of the people. It also declares the only legitimate purpose of government.
The Declaration of Independence was adopted in 1776 by the second Continental Congress whose initial purpose had been to explore ways to restore the relationship with Great Britain. Independence was not universally desired by the colonists. Historians estimate that only about forty percent of the people were in favor of independence at the time. A large number of colonists were still loyal to England, even after the outbreak of the war, and between thirty and forty percent struggled to remain neutral.
By the time the Congress convened in 1775, hope for reconciliation with England had all but disappeared. The second Congress met in May, less than a month after the battles of Lexington and Concord in which fifty colonists were killed and thirty-nine wounded. The British losses were sixty-five killed, 180 wounded and twenty-seven missing. Benjamin Franklin had just returned from London where he had been sent by the First Congress in an attempt at reconciliation between Great Britain and the Colonies. At the same time Thomas Jefferson was promoting a plan for America to be governed by King George III with an independent legislature in the colonies.
Soon after the second Congress convened, Peyton Randolph, President of the first Congress and reelected as President of the second was called back to Virginia for a meeting of the Virginia Assembly of which he was the Speaker. Thomas Jefferson was sent to Philadelphia as his replacement, arriving on June 21. With the Departure of Randolph, John Hancock was elected as President. Hancock, along with Samuel Adams, both of Boston and generally considered to be the instigators of the Boston Tea Party, were strong advocates for independence.
The arguments of Hancock and Adams for a declaration of independence finally prevailed as being necessary in order to secure aid from other European nations like France and Spain. A committee consisting of John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, Robert Livingston and Thomas Jefferson was appointed to prepare a declaration of independence. The committee assigned the task of writing the document to Thomas Jefferson.
Near the end of his life, Jefferson, responding to a controversy seemingly originating with John Adams concerning the originality of the ideas expressed in the Declaration of Independence explained his purpose in drafting the document.
“This was the object of the Declaration of Independence. Not to find out new principles, or new arguments, never before thought of, not merely to say things which had never been said before; but to place before mankind the common sense of the subject, in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent, and to justify ourselves in the independent stand we are compelled to take. Neither aiming at originality of principle or sentiment, nor yet copied from any particular and previous writing, it was intended to be an expression of the American mind, and to give to that expression the proper tone and spirit called for by the occasion.” ~Thomas Jefferson, letter to Richard Henry Lee, May 8, 1825
There can be no doubt that he succeeded in his mission, for in the two-hundred words of the second paragraph he encapsulates, not only an “expression of the American mind” but an expression of its heart and spirit as well.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, That 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 new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.”
The ideals expressed in these words not only provides the justification for America’s independence and sovereignty, but the principles on which the Constitution and the Bill of Rights are based. From these ideals the most prosperous nation in history was established and has endured for over two-hundred years.
Throughout its history, America has been a haven of liberty for the oppressed throughout the world. During the last half of the twentieth century, the principles established in the Declaration of Independence has been increasingly ignored. With the election of Barack Obama to the office of President and the sharp turn away from the principles of liberty and the rule of law to the principles of statism and autocracy, the traditional role and character of America as the last bastion of liberty and prosperity is under the threat of extinction.