June 24, 1826
In one of his last letters, Thomas Jefferson recalled that the Declaration of Independence was not simply an American document written for the benefit of Americans. Rather, it was meant to produce a revolution in the opinions of mankind at large, especially by challenging the then prevailing belief that a people must simply accept kings, aristocrats or unelected despots as their rulers. Less than two weeks after penning the memorable words in this letter, Thomas Jefferson died — on the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1826.
Questions for consideration: How does Jefferson’s description of the Declaration’s purpose in this letter differ from the account he gives in his letter to Henry Lee? What does Jefferson mean when he describes human equality as a “palpable truth”? Who are the “favored few” Jefferson refers to at the end of this letter?
RESPECTED SIR, — The kind invitation I receive from you, on the part of the citizens of the city of Washington, to be present with them at their celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of American Independence, as one of the surviving signers of an instrument pregnant with our own, and the fate of the world, is most flattering to myself, and heightened by the honorable accompaniment proposed for the comfort of such a journey. It adds sensibly to the sufferings of sickness, to be deprived by it of a personal participation in the rejoicings of that day. But acquiescence is a duty, under circumstances not placed among those we are permitted to control. I should, indeed, with peculiar delight, have met and exchanged there congratulations personally with the small band, the remnant of that host of worthies, who joined with us on that day, in the bold and doubtful election we were to make for our country, between submission or the sword; and to have enjoyed with them the consolatory fact, that our fellow citizens, after half a century of experience and prosperity, continue to approve the choice we made. May it be to the world, what I believe it will be, (to some parts sooner, to others later, but finally to all), the signal of arousing men to burst the chains under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings and security of self-government. That form which we have substituted, restores the free right to the unbounded exercise of reason and freedom of opinion. All eyes are opened, or opening, to the rights of man. The general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view the palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God. These are grounds of hope for others. For ourselves, let the annual return of this day forever refresh our recollections of these rights, and an undiminished devotion to them. …
Source: Thomas Jefferson: Writings, ed. Merrill D. Peterson (New York: Library of America, 1984), 1516-1517.Core Document