Andrew Leahey History 135 Midterm Essay #9

Discuss the ideology surrounding the Declaration of Independence. On what principles, hopes and desired results was it based? Can these principles and the realities of American life be reconciled? Be sure to include a discussion of Thomas Jefferson using The Mosaic article "The American Sphinx."

The Declaration of Independence, the most famous American document ever written, is a statement authored by Thomas Jefferson, who's efforts at profound political thought were described by John Adams and James Madison as "often embarrassingly superficial and sometimes downright juvenile" [Ellis,154]. The principles of the document itself mirror the ambitious, though perhaps unattainable, philosophical views its author held. In fact, the original Jeffersonian copy of the Declaration previous to any Continental Congress edits, was written with even more utopian ideals. Rather than all men merely being created equal, Jefferson's original copy reads that "all men are created equal and independent" that these rights were "sacred and undeniable" and that their rights are inherent from their "equal creation" [Jefferson,154]. With slavery a legal institution, these statements obviously contradict the reality of life in Jefferson's time. It should be noted, however, that the slave trade itself was a deplored enterprise in Virginia during this time.

Thomas Jefferson acts as a pseudo-Messiah for our nation. We do not want to attempt to reconcile his moral choices with his writings, because we fear he will fall from the pedestal we have placed him on. He, like the Declaration he authored, has become a figure that can be referred to by both sides in nearly any political difference of opinion as a champion of their cause. Due to this, we have largely overlooked the glaring contradictions in not only the nation and the creed, but the man himself and his writings. He spoke of all men being created equal, and yet he owned slaves. He failed to live up to the ideals he himself had written, with evidence of his racism and sexism. Even still, we stand behind him both as a man and a founding father of our country. Perhaps this is due to his famously enigmatic persona, or maybe it just reflects our inherent need for an intellectual champion; somehow if he is flawed, maybe our nation and our ideals are too.

It is clear then, to me, that the desired result of the Declaration of Independence was to produce something the American people could rally behind, something written so clearly and concisely, every American could understand its principles and align himself with its ideology. It was less a directive, and more a list of ideals we should be striving towards, even knowing that it could never be achieved to perfection. The intention, I think, was to put down on paper all the hopes and dreams that could be realized if liberation from England was successful. It was a collection of the highest ideals Jefferson held, his most ambitious aspirations for a road-map for the new country.

Though historically thought of as a radical document, the Declaration was actually not released until after the general public's sentiments had moved

closer towards being in line with it. Though they believed in the principles behind the Declaration, the signers knew what they were getting in to, facing execution as traitors, and were not about to put their name on such a document if the American people were not behind them.

The Declaration of Independence also marked a change in who the Colonists and Congress held responsible for their ills. Previously, they had blamed Parliament, giving King George something of a free-pass. Now it was quite clear who they held accountable; eighteen of the documents paragraphs begin with "He", referring to the King, and go on to list a way in which he had personally wronged America. Just two years prior, in 1774's "Declarations and Resolves" of The Continental Congress, this King was referred to in the most cordial terms and Congress proposed to "prepare a loyal address to his majesty" [Congress,146]. This marked more than just a change in opinion of a leader, this marked a change of the course of action America would need to take. If you're against Parliament, there may be some hope for a peaceful resolution through diplomatic channels. If you're against the King though, you're against England itself, as he is the government.

I believe the principles put forth in the Declaration of Independence by Thomas Jefferson are ambitious ones, but ones that must be worked towards. He was quoted as saying he "drew his ideas from the harmonizing ideas of the day". Though some of the statements are in direct conflict with what was going on around Jefferson at the time, and his own actions, I do believe he knew what he was doing when he authored the document. It reflects his thinking that there was a clear line between good and evil. The

Declaration would be a timeless piece of writing that could be referred to by many different groups of people, existing in many different times, with a feeling of "this applies to me, too". Jefferson hoped for a country not only free from the tyranny of Great Britain, but free from the shortcomings that would not leave with the British. Thomas Jefferson hoped to lay out a plan which the nation he helped to found could follow, even if he himself did not succeed in adhering to it. Though perfection may never be achieved, it must forever be strived for.