Friday, July 4, 2008

The First Democracy of the Enlightenment: United States, 1776

Thomas Jefferson, crafting the text for the Declaration of Independence in 1776, wrote the following lines:
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.

A classical specimen of Enlightenment era political economy, Jefferson's "declaration" on behalf of the Continental Congress stressed freedom, individual autonomy, government by consent not coercion, and (to echo Thomas Payne) the 'rights of man'.

Now, to be absolutely precise, Jefferson (33 years of age at the time) wrote the first draft -- a little more 'in your face' and stridently anti-British than the final version of the text, which would be spread by broadsheet across the colonies, delivered unto King George, and passed down to us for posterity. Jefferson's draft was proofread and revised by John Adams and Benjamin Franklin. Then the Continental Congress had a go at it, and struck out the overly acerbic references to the British people and the slave trade.

Still, this document represented a watershed moment for the American colonies -- signalling the changed in course from a campaign to defend the American colonists' enjoyment of the "rights of Englishmen" to a campaign to rid the American colonies of English monarchic rule. -- The flame of a revolutionary spirit ignited by the spark of a noble rhetoric, a new republic was born.

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