Thomas Jefferson and the Declaration of Independen

ceeStanding in awe of this country’s great achievements, one might ask how it came to be as it is today. As simple as this question might seem, the answer has been proven to be much more complex. Distorted in the eyes of human perception, the history that built this great nation that is the United States of America is one that holds as many truths as falsehoods. Yet, this to a nation which constantly strives for truth, whether it defies the popular belief or not. Keeping to a logical frame of mind, one must be open to the idea that because human history has been written on popular perceptions, those perceptions may be distorted. Such is the matter in the case of one of the most prestigious and prized documents in this country, as well as the world. The Declaration of Independence has stood for an array of principles since it’s issue. Yet, what was it’s intended purpose? What about the popular perception of the Declaration of Independence today? Which interpretation is the right one? Perhaps the most challenging of these questions is, “is there a right or wrong interpretation of the Declaration?” There are other questions now that seek answers. Throughout history, Thomas Jefferson has been credited with composing the declaration, but one must ask if this accepted fact is the truth. Evidence has promoted the idea that Jefferson constructed the Declaration from other documents in history. With this in mind, who truly wrote the Declaration of Independence? All of these question have the significance of not only questioning history’s validity, but also of standing for principles. Who owns an idea? Once an idea is presented, is it open to interpretation and use by individuals, or is it to remain focused in the intentions of the creator? Does an interpretation stand to be recognized for all time, or may an interpretation change in the light of new minds? The eyes that gaze upon the tapestry that is the history of the United States of America are human eyes. Thus, these are the eyes of individuals, of the common man, the wealthy man, the righteous man, and the defiant man, each with their own view of the world. Is it the duty of history to be set in stone on the advertised perceptions of the few, or is it up to the individual to formulate his own tapestry of history? The search for truth has significance in that is remedies a mind in doubt. Yet, is the strive for truth pursued for fear that one lives in false interpretations because they are not the universal ideals?
Dr. Pauline Maier, writer and known authority on Thomas Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence, helped to raise all of these questions into the light of discussion.. She was able to stir intriguing ideas, and also give thought provoking answers to problems that have plagued historians for years. She shed light on many viewpoints on the Declaration of Independence. It is these ideas, answers, and viewpoints which she addressed, openly or otherwise, that open the gate for further discussion.

One of the questions which appears to have an obvious answer is who wrote the Declaration of Independence? Most people would answer Thomas Jefferson. However, the answer is not as simple as most people believe it to be. Dr. Maier addressed the idea of multiple contributors and influences that constructed the document. There is valid evidence which she presented to support this idea. In fact, there is enough substantial evidence to assure the idea that Jefferson borrowed some outside material. Previously written documents, committees, and personal contributions all create a vast multitude of sources for Jefferson to have tapped into to construct the Declaration.
An interesting document that rises when speaking about the influences of the Declaration of Independence is the Bill of Rights written by the British Parliament in 1689. Dr. Maier presented evidence that the two documents were somewhat parallel. The most blatant and obvious correlation is in the preamble. The opening paragraph in both documents state the significance of action, referring to the phrase, “When in the course of human events.” It is plausible to say that Jefferson had knowledge of this document, and borrowed some of the openly presented or underlying ideas. The connection is strong enough to suggest this, as Dr. Maier promotes. One would agree with such evidence presented. It is probable to say that since Jefferson was a popular scholar, he would have had knowledge of the English Bill of Rights
Another possible influence for Jefferson lies in Mecklenberg, North Carolina. In 1775, Mecklenberg generated a Declaration of Rights. This document is somewhat similar to the Declaration of Independence in that their messages and principles are extremely similar. Perhaps Jefferson was able to attain a copy of this document and apply it to the construction of the Declaration of Independence.

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Certainly one of the most outstanding possible influences to the Declaration of Independence is George Mason’s Declaration of Rights for Virginia. What is most astonishing about the correlation between the two documents lies in the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence. There seems to be somewhat of a direct quote of Mason’s declaration in the phrase, ” 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…” Dr. Maier seemed to put an emphasis on this particular document due to the circumstances under which it was written. The date at which Mason’s declaration was written is June 12, 1776, nearly a month before the Declaration of Independence was drafted. Also, Mason’s declaration was published in various newspapers. This would indicate that the document had circulated. This evidence is too strong to overlook as simply chance, yet one must decide the point at which the logical occurrence of events is purely coincidental or a safe assumption. In this case, one is inclined to agree with Dr. Maier seeing that the evidence which she presents is overwhelmingly decisive as to Mason’s influence on Jefferson.
Another angle at which an influence might have occurred is the Constitutional Committee assigned to draft the Declaration. It is an accepted fact that there was a committee assigned to draft the Declaration, however, Jefferson was given the task of its first draft. Dr. Maier brought up interesting points in that evidence shows that Jefferson, after writing the first draft, sent copies to Benjamin Franklin and John Adams asking for commentary and revisions. The draft then went on to be presented to the committee for revisions. This is now simply a matter of credit. It is obvious that the committee revised some of the original document, but is this significant enough to establish credit? Undoubtedly, the committee had influence over Jefferson, seeing that they commissioned him to draft the document. Once again, one would have to agree with Dr. Maier that the committee played a valid and substantial role in the creation of the final declaration.

One of the most obvious and profound influences on the Declaration would be that of the Continental Congress. Dr. Maier presented the fact that after Jefferson’s draft had been revised by the committee, it would have to pass through Congress. There are obvious changes that occurred at this time. Some of the original language was changed due to its harsh nature. Also, a phrase pertaining to slave trade was removed. Many of the revisions were to make the document more accurate in a historical sense, as well as, take away from the original document’s unreserved language. The most interesting fact is that these revision were done in Jefferson’s handwriting. This fact adds to the assumption that Jefferson himself had made the corrections, though this is obviously not the case.

In determining who wrote the Declaration of Independence, one must remember that it is a question of deserved recognition. Who truly deserved recognition? Dr. Maier promoted the idea that the situation is comparable to an author who writes a book and sends it to an editor. The editor makes some revisions, but who is to be credited? Ironically, Dr. Maier is an author herself, so does this make Dr. Maier’s conclusions biased on this subject? One must remember to answer the question, who owns ideas? Perhaps the sculptor lays the groundwork, and the rough edges are chiseled away to form a final piece. Maybe, the basic outline was already established in previous creations, and the sculptor merely evolves the piece to fit their current vision. Such is the case in the dilemma with the credit for drafting the Declaration of Independence. Dr. Maier also presented the viewpoint that in Jefferson’s time, the rules of plagiarism were drastically different. This can be proven in other substantial writings of the time. Many great works were those modeled after older ideas and principles, if not documents themselves. Is it just to judge Jefferson and the rest of the contributors to the Declaration by present-day standards? Perhaps not, but that might be why the widely accepted view is that Jefferson wrote the declaration. This viewpoint is only reinforced by years of popular acceptance without reviewing history.

Dr. Maier made some interesting comments regarding the aftermath of the Declaration of Independence. After the war, the Declaration seemed to fade away into history. This could be due to the political focus of the time. A new nation was struggling to maintain the union of thirteen separate states, and stabilize an economy. It seemed as if the Declaration had slipped by the wayside in the history of the country. However, its sleep would be short lived. The Declaration seemed to resurface as a significant document around the time of the creation of the Constitution. Dr. Maier presented the reason for this being the lack of representation of human principle in the Constitution. Therefore, the Declaration was seen as a good model for the Bill of Rights, referring particularly the second paragraph of that document. In the Bill of Rights, one is able to see this influence clearly.

It is important to note that Jefferson had changing viewpoints on the Declaration. At first, Jefferson did not seem to be overly enthusiastic about being the author of a document that would declare the independence of the states from the most powerful nation on earth. This feeling was further fueled by the many revisions made to Jefferson’s original draft, as he could have possibly felt personally offended by the revisions. However, around 1822, there was an interest in the creation of the Declaration which lead to an investigation of the events that took place during its construction. An interview was conducted with John Adams, who gave a testimony to the events that occurred. Jefferson, however, had a somewhat different view on the events. It appears that Adams had accused Jefferson of taking all the credit, which seems to be a reasonable conclusion. This is interesting, considering that Jefferson had previously no desire to be solely connected with the document. Dr. Maier promoted an array of ideas. Perhaps Jefferson was reassured of the Declaration’s validity after the War of 1812 had been fought, assuring American independence. It could also be that Jefferson was depressed in his old age, dealing with a disappointing presidency, an unsuccessful job as the governor of Virginia, and an unproductive job of Secretary of State. Any or all of the factors might have pushed Jefferson to hold on to the Declaration as a redeeming thought in his mind, therefore promoting his authorship of Declaration. Nowhere is this more evident than on Jefferson’s own tombstone which speaks nothing of the presidency, but does include Jefferson’s writing of the Declaration of Independence.

Two of the most provocative questions that stir in people’s minds today about the Declaration of Independence is, what was its purpose, and what is its significance today? The first clue to answering this question lies in a breakdown of the document itself. The first paragraph seems to lend itself to an explanation of independence, while the second paragraph has more of a humanitarian feel to it. The second paragraph especially expands on the rights of man which is a very convincing reason why it remains the more universally recognized part of the document. The remainder of the document is , of course, justification for independence. It is important to note that the infractions of the king presented in the declaration seem to be somewhat generalized, thus easily sympathized with by the common man. This suggests the idea that the declaration was intended to be read by the masses. Dr. Maier acknowledged this idea, and suggested that the declaration existed as a “revolutionary manifesto,” being read to such diverse audiences as northern federalists and to the colonial militia. With this in mind, the document would have helped assured the support of patriots, while perhaps convincing those yet undecided on the issue of supporting independence. One might pursue the idea that the Declaration was also a political statement which asked for support from foreign nations. The ideas in the Declaration itself are simple enough to appeal to a wide range of people. One is inclined to immediately note France as a possible audience for their role in the coming revolution.
Dr. Maier also suggested that the significance of the Declaration of Independence has changed through the years. During the time of the drafting of the Bill of Rights, the Declaration might have took on the role of a model document, in particular the second paragraph, which holds the famous line, ” We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal….” In the present day one finds the Declaration still being used to promote the ideas of equality, mainly by civil rights organizations and minority groups.

Through all of this historical chaos, one must venture towards their own conclusions. There are many questions which require answers, and those answers lie in the mind of the individual. It may be that Jefferson received most of the credit for drafting the Declaration of Independence, though it is obvious that he was not alone in this task. Today, one is able to look back on history and investigate the role that others played in the formation of that great document. Perhaps, in the time of Jefferson, the Declaration served as a call to arms for many men, while it convinced others to join the cause. Today, the Declaration serves as an example of the right of equality for all men. As everyone has their own view of the world, there is no view which is wrong and therefore no view should be subject to suppression. There is no one viewpoint that is the supreme and divine perception. History is given to us in a collection of delicate facts, stories, and testaments to the actual events which occurred. The people who wrote and told these stories are all individuals with their own view of the world, as will the people who reading this document have their own views. The search for truth is the search for the acceptance of our own personal reality. Dr. Maier gave her own interesting perspective on many of the questions about the Declaration and Jefferson. One still can not rule out other views which may be just as valid. Historical accuracy is a measurement of the how close a conviction is to the truth. Yet, as long as the truth is determined by the human mind, the goal of reaching the complete truth is an unattainable one. So, as it serves mankind to discover more about the past, it serves as well to help man uncover more about his own identity.
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