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Jefferson and Writing the Declaration of Independence Term Paper

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Introduction

Thomas Jefferson was a prominent political leader of the 18th century who made his name in the history of United States of America by drafting the famous Declaration of Independence. Jefferson’s desire was to return to Virginia to help the state government in writing the constitution. However the Congress appointed him to the five member committee that was assigned the task of writing the Declaration for the Colonists. The committee appointed him to produce the necessary points for the Declaration to be reviewed by them. Jefferson relied upon the works of several scholars such as Locke and Hutcheson for drafting the Declaration. At the same time he relied on help from the Virginia Declaration of Rights, his own draft of the Virginia constitution along with several other documents (Library of Congress, 2006).

Jefferson produced a remarkable document supporting the colonists in their right to freedom from the British rule. The document was based on the premise that all men are created equal and therefore they must have their inalienable rights to life, freedom and pursuit of happiness (Library of Congress, 2006).

There were several changes made by the review committee and then by the Continental Congress. Still, Jefferson maintained his authorship. He was proud of it but was critical of the changes made relating to the accusation of slave trade.

In this paper I aim to discuss in detail some of the influences that helped Jefferson in drafting one of the most remarkable documents of revolution and independence ever drafted in the history of United States of America.

Locke’s Influence On Jefferson

According to the article “The Philosophical Basis of Modern Racism” (n.d.), John Locke had strongly made his influence upon Americans. Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence is a prominent example of Locke’s influence. Jefferson considered Locke one of his greatest heroes. He admired his philosophies greatly. Upon analyzing the strategy and language use of the Declaration of Independence one cannot ignore the influence of the Second Treatise by Locke. Locke’s Second Treatise is about the equality of people and their rights to live a free life according to their wishes within the limitations imposed by laws that are there to protect their basic rights. Likewise the Declaration of Independence states:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men were created equal and were endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

The above statement actually echoes Locke’s views on liberty and equality. As we compare Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence with Locke’s Second Treatise we find both of them revolutionary in nature. Jefferson had tried to explain the fact that the King of England had actually abused his rights and as such, rebellion was not only inevitable but justified. The draft that was submitted to the Continental Congress showed that the King of England, George III, had actually abused his powers by forcing slave trade on protesting colonists. Although many interpretations of the above preposition have been made still one thing is clear; like Locke Jefferson wanted the abolition of slavery and for this reason the clause was added to the Declaration to be approved by the Continental Congress.

Francis Hutcheson Influence On Jefferson

McReynold (2008) traces the influence of the Scottish Enlightenment Movement on Americans in his article “The Legacy of Frances Hutcheson”. Hutcheson was a Scottish philosopher whose ideas soon made him an important star in the constellation of a movement called “The Scottish Enlightenment”. This movement had made a great impact directly and indirectly in gaining independence for the United States of America. The movement also helped in shaping the constitution of the country. Talking about his influence Bernard Bailyn wrote in his “Pamphlets of American Revolution, 1756-1777” that Hutcheson was a prominent figure of the 18th century that the “colonists know and cited”. He believed in “absolute freedom of conscience and of public religious exercise”.

Jefferson’s professor, Dr. William Small, was a disciple of Hutcheson who taught his views on “virtue” and “liberty” to his students of William and Mary College, where Jefferson was a student. Jefferson wrote the following words about Dr. Small: “he…probably fixed the destines of my life”. Like Hutcheson, Jefferson believed in the freedom of religion. He wrote “it does me no injury for my neighbor to say that there are twenty gods or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” He believed that there should be no compulsion in the matters of religion and that it must be tolerated.

In one of his works written in 1725, Francis Hutcheson wrote about the “Unalienable rights” which he believed were of great importance and which controlled all the governments and powers in their relationship with the individuals. This view greatly influenced Jefferson and provided him a solid and justified reason for the colonists to seek independence from the British. Jefferson’s views reflected Hutcheson’s philosophy who wrote:

“For whenever an invasion is made upon unalienable rights, there must arise either a perfect or extreme right to resistance…unalienable rights are essential limitations in all governments”.

The philosophy not only provided justification for the American Revolution but the words “unalienable rights” fit well with Jefferson’s notion of “inalienable rights”. At the same time Hutcheson’s ideas of “happiness” echo in the Declaration of Independence checklist which was appended “The Pursuit of Happiness”. Hutcheson disliked slavery and believed that freedom was the natural right of every man. Keeping these notions alive, Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence and stated “all men are created equal”.

Other Influences

The website of the Library of Congress (2006) gives a detailed account of other influences that helped Jefferson in drafting the Declaration of Independence.

Instructions to the Delegates from Virginia to the first Continental Congress written in 1774 by Jefferson

Jefferson drafted these instructions for the delegates from Virginia to be presented before the first Continental Congress. The instructions were considered too radical by the Congress. However, a friend of Jefferson published them in Williamsburg. The ideas presented in the instructions and its language played a major role in selecting Jefferson for drafting the Declaration.

Fairfax County Resolves, 1774

Fairfax County Resolves were written by George Mason and George Washington. The Resolves were adopted by the Fairfax County Convention which was chaired by George Washington. The Resolves were a clear protest against the British regarding their attitude towards Boston. Washington and Madison clearly stated that the constitutional rights were the fundamental rights of the British colonies. The Resolves demanded an end to trade with Britain and at the same time an end to the act of importing slaves. Keeping these points in mind Jefferson tried to include the condemnation of the British act of slave trading in the Declaration of Independence. His efforts were not successful in as far as the slave trading issue was concerned.

George Mason’s Virginia Declaration of Rights

The Virginia Declaration of Rights was drafted by George Mason and Thomas Ludwell Lee. The Declaration was very influential and became instrumental in the movement for American Independence. This is one of the documents in which Thomas Jefferson greatly relied at the time of writing the Declaration of Independence. The Virginia Declaration of Rights became a parent to the Declaration of Independence, Virginia Constitution and the Bill of Rights. The language and principles of both documents by Mason and Jefferson are similar.

The Draft of the Constitution of Virginia

Jefferson had presented three drafts to the Continental Congress for the constitution of Virginia. The document was highly influential and helped Jefferson in writing the Declaration of Independence.

To conclude Jefferson explored the ideas of his predecessors to write the Declaration of Independence. His efforts proved fruitful when the Declaration of Independence came to be known as an important step for America towards freedom from the British rule.

References

, Library of Congress, (2006). Web.

McReynold, A. “The Legacy of Francis Hutcheson”, The Ulster-Scot, (2008). Web.

“The Philosophical Basis of Modern Racism”, (n.d.). Web.

Picture of Jefferson. Web.

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