Even after fighting in the American Revolutionary War began at Lexington and Concord in April 1775, most colonists still hoped for reconciliation with Great Britain. Thomas Jefferson saw a need to justify this revolution in the eyes of the people. He, and other founding fathers, knew that for this revolt to be successful, all thirteen colonies and their citizens must be united in a common goal. For Jefferson to achieve unity amongst the colonists, he had to show that violations of law and abuse of basic rights existed under the current British rule.
The Declaration of Independence, written largely by Thomas Jefferson, is a statement of what government is and from what source it may derive its powers. It begins with a summary of those inalienable rights that are the basis for a free society and to protect those rights, what powers a just government may exercise. By Jefferson’s own admission, the Declaration of Independence contained no original ideas, but was instead a statement of sentiments widely shared by supporters of the American Revolution. As he explained in 1825:
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.
Jefferson’s most immediate sources were two documents written in June 1776: his own draft of the preamble of the Constitution of Virginia, and George Mason’s draft of the Virginia Declaration of Rights. Ideas and phrases from both of these documents appear in the Declaration of Independence. They were in turn directly influenced by the 1689 English Declaration of Rights, which formally ended the reign of King James II. During the American Revolution, Jefferson and other Americans looked to the English Declaration of Rights as a model of how to end the reign of an unjust king. (Maier, 1997)
“The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over these states. To prove this, let facts be submitted to a candid world…” (Davenport, 2009)
The Declaration then goes on to list specific violations against the colonists by the King. These “violations” made it clear to the population that they were being treated unfairly and that they had every right to revolt against the King, who Jefferson refers to as a “tyrant”. As the war was already raging, the Declaration of Independence gave further justification for America’s independence. There was clear separation amongst the states as to if the revolution was founded. Jefferson’s listing of abuses and violations of basic rights are clearly aimed at the King of Britain and his monarchy. The Declaration brought recognition of these injustices to every citizen, and hence, justification of the American Revolution.
After the war, another challenge remained; how to prevent these abuses from occurring in the new republic? Enter the Constitution of the United States of America, 1788. The Constitution, by both its design and the terms used as written, limits government to the powers delegated. Our Constitution is a closed legal and logical system that declares itself and the laws made pursuant to it, to be the supreme law of the land, and that is the only law that it allows. There is no room in it for “inherent sovereign immunity”. The purpose of government is to maintain a society which secures to every member the inherent and inalienable rights of man, and promotes the safety and happiness of its people. Protecting these rights from violation, therefore, is its primary obligation. (Maier, 1997)
“The Supreme Law of the Land” is “The Constitution as it is written” and the laws made pursuant thereto. Its interpretations are not the supreme law of the land. They are mere interpretations that may or may not be correct, or may even be dishonest and treacherous to it. “Who will govern the governors?” There is only one force in the nation that can be depended upon to keep the government pure and the governors honest, and that is the people themselves. They alone, if well informed, are capable of preventing the corruption of power, and of restoring the nation to its rightful course if it should go astray. They alone are the safest depository of the ultimate powers of government. (Coates, 1999)
I know no safe depositary of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power. — Thomas Jefferson to William C. Jarvis, 1820
In the Constitution and the first ten amendments, it is clear that the government remain, “of the people”. Also, that no state or local government shall supersede the authority of the federal government or revolt against it. By representation in the Senate and Congress, each state is given a voice in the federal government.
The last hope of human liberty in this world rests on us. . . . If we move in mass, be it ever so circuitously, we shall attain our object; but if we break into squads, every one pursuing the path he thinks most direct, we become an easy conquest to those who can now barely hold us in check.
I repeat again, that we ought not to schismatize on either men or measures. Principles alone can justify that. If we find our government in all its branches rushing headlong, like our predecessors, into the arms of monarchy, if we find them violating our dearest rights, the trial by jury, the freedom of the press, the freedom of opinion, civil or religious, or opening on our peace of mind or personal safety the sluices of terrorism, if we see them raising standing armies, when the absence of all other danger points to these as the sole objects on which they are to be employed, then indeed let us withdraw and call the nation to its tents.
But while our functionaries are wise, and honest, and vigilant, let us move compactly under their guidance, and we have nothing to fear. Things may here and there go a little wrong. It is not in their power to prevent it. But all will be right in the end, though not perhaps by the shortest means. — Thomas Jefferson to Colonel Wm. Duane, 1811
Obviously, Jefferson and the founding fathers saw that too much power was given a monarchy and the Constitution clearly shows how power is to be divided in the new republic. Basic civil rights are also listed so that they cannot be infringed upon or abused. By declaring these rights and division of authority, the republic and its Constitution, ensures that these abuses will not happen again. As the Declaration of Independence united the colonies, so too did the Constitution unite the people’s rights.
Coates, Eyler (1999). _Thomas Jefferson on Politics & Government._ Retrieved May 4, 2009, from
Davenport, Anniken (2009). _Basic Criminal Law – The Constitution, Procedure, and Crimes._ Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall Publishing
Maier, Pauline (1997). _American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence._ New York: Knopf Publishing.