May 8, 1825
As the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence approached, Thomas Jefferson shared with Henry Lee his recollection of what had inspired and informed its authors and signers. The Declaration’s authority, Jefferson wrote, rested upon shared sentiments and common beliefs that comprised “the American mind.” However, by implicitly distinguishing between American “whigs” and others who lived in the colonies and states during the Revolution, Jefferson suggested that being an American is not so much defined by where one resides but by a commitment to liberty, natural equality, and self-government.
Questions for consideration: Why does Jefferson describe those who thought alike about the Revolution as “American whigs”? What was the object of the Declaration of Independence, and how original were the ideas expressed in it? Upon what authority do the sentiments expressed in the Declaration of Independence rest?
[W]ith respect to our rights, and the acts of the British government contravening those rights, there was but one opinion on this side of the water. All American whigs thought alike on these subjects.
When forced, therefore, to resort to arms for redress, an appeal to the tribunal of the world was deemed proper for our justification. This was the object of the Declaration of Independence. Not to find out new principles, or new arguments, never before thought of, not merely to say things which had never been said before; but to place before mankind the common sense of the subject, in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent, and to justify ourselves in the independent stand we are compelled to take. 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.
All its authority rests then on the harmonizing sentiments of the day, whether expressed in conversation, in letters, printed essays, or in the elementary books of public right, as Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney, &c. …
Source: Thomas Jefferson: Writings, ed. Merrill D. Peterson (New York: Library of America, 1984), 1500-1501.Core Document