Thomas Jefferson to Roger Chew Weightman

How optimistic was Jefferson that the Declaration’s principles were taking root around the globe? Do you think this optimism was misplaced? What was Jefferson referring to when he mentioned “monkish ignorance and superstition” as a force keeping men in chains?
Did the fact that the United States was graced with the “blessings of liberty” require the nation to propagate these blessings abroad through diplomatic, military, or covert means? (See “A City upon a Hill,” Declaration of Independence, Notes on the State of Virginia, Query 22, Selected Dispatches, Market Speech, Special Message Regarding the Annexation of Santo Domingo, The Olney Corollary, Message to Congress Requesting a Declaration of War with Spain, Against American Imperialism.)

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The influence of the Declaration of Independence lasted well beyond 1776, and its principles continue to resonate around the globe. The Marquis de Lafayette (1757–1834) and the Comte de Mirabeau (1749–1791) incorporated the Declaration’s sentiments in the “Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen,” one of the key documents of the French Revolution. Hungarian nationalist Lajos Kossuth (1802–1894), considered the father of Hungarian democracy and that nation’s president in the mid-nineteenth century, argued that the Declaration was “the noblest, happiest page in mankind’s history.” Francisco de Miranda (1750–1816) was inspired by America’s example to attempt to overthrow the Spanish empire in South America, and the former American slaves who settled in Liberia noted in their founding document that “all men, [enjoy] certain natural and inalienable rights: among these are life, liberty, and the right to acquire, possess, and enjoy property.” In the twentieth century, the United Nations incorporated Jefferson’s sentiments in its Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), and various anticolonial movements adopted elements of the Declaration’s language in their independence efforts. Vaclav Havel (1936–2011), the driving force behind the Velvet Revolution in 1989 that led to the collapse of Soviet rule in the former Czechoslovakia, frequently mentioned the Declaration as one of the seminal statements animating the perpetual human quest for self-government.
In this letter to Roger Weightman (1787–1876), who at the time was mayor of Washington, DC, Jefferson apologized for being unable to attend celebrations there marking the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration but noted that he took comfort in the fact that the Declaration’s principles were beginning to take root and would eventually triumph around the globe.

—Stephen F. Knott

“From Thomas Jefferson to Roger Chew Weightman, 24 June 1826,” Founders Online,
National Archives,

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 50th 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. . . . 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 & 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. . .

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