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Robert Kennedy's United States History Class

Required Lecture For LO III

Learning Objective III: 

Discuss the function of the Declaration of Independence and its assertion of natural rights, Be sure to elaborate on Jefferson's arguments and his evidence for revolution. Be sure to identify specific examples.  

The Declaration of Independence announced to mankind WHY the colonists felt they must separate from the British Empire. It was an appeal to the world, an attempt to win public understanding and support both at home and abroad-- piece of political propaganda: that was the main function of the Declaration. The document implies that it speaks for the majority of the people in the new United States, when in actuality according to John Adams, only about one third of the American people supported the Revolutionary War.


How effective would the document have been in trying to gain support for the new government if it had stated it only represented one third of the American people? Thus, in order to gain support for their cause, the patriots implied the document had more support than it really did.


In this manner the patriots justified a revolt by a minority, not a majority. This fact raises an interesting question: Does an oppressed minority have the right to revolt in society today?


In a speech given in 1848, Lincoln stated: "Any people anywhere, being inclined and having the power, have the right to rise up and shake off the existing government, and form a new one that suits them better, That is a most valuable, a most sacred right--a right which we hope and believe is to liberate the world. Nor is the right confined to cases in which the whole people of an existing government may choose to exercise it. Any portion of such people that can, may revolutionize and make their own of so much of the territory as they inhabit."


The Declaration has become a sacred document in our society and around the world to which men have appealed when they have wished to make drastic reforms or to assert human equality. In the 1960's the Black Panther party was such a group. They even printed the preamble of the Declaration in their party platform.


The problem with the Black Panther's argument, however, is that they were using the Declaration to advocate changes in society to bring about more social and economic equality. When the draftsmen of the Declaration put their signatures to a parchment declaring that 11All men are created equal,11 they were not endorsing social or economic equality as it is sometimes understood today, nor were they endorsing the idea that all men are created equal in their personal endowments and talents .


What they meant was that all men share equally in certain basic political rights which governments must not invade; and that possession of these rights puts Americans on the same level as men in England or anywhere else. Hence, the Declaration was written as a political argument and not as an argument for social or economic equality.


The Declaration was also a political justification for events that had already taken place. The American Revolution was over by 1776 and the 13 states were fighting the war to preserve what they had accomplished by that date. England was fighting the war to gain control over the colonies she never had. The Declaration did not advocate that changes should take place; it was an attempt to explain WHY the 13 United States had taken the action they had.

"Jefferson" on John Lockes' Influence on the Declaration of Independence. 

In writing the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson borrowed quite heavily from the Enlightenment, Newtonian principles and, in particular, from the writings of John Locke and his natural rights doctrine. Faith in Nature and in Reason was the common denominator of the Enlightenment.

Age of Enlightenment / Declaration of Independence

Both Locke and Jefferson accepted the Newtonian world governed by the laws of Nature and of Nature's God. They accepted, too, the idea that Reason could penetrate and master the laws of Nature, and that Reason could persuade men to conform to the axioms or principles of Reason in philosophy and ethics, politics, economics and the law. In other words Reason makes things self-evident (to all educated men) if there is a commitment to freedom of the mind--freedom from religious and social superstitions. These self-evident truths, once discovered, are not only permanent but universal. Jefferson's self-evident truths in the Declaration were no more original than were the arguments in Thomas Paine's Common Sense: the Declaration of Independence was itself simply the common sense of the matter. This is one reason why it was so generally accepted and WHY it was such a great piece of political propaganda.


It has also been argued that the signers of the Declaration realized that these truths discussed in the document were not evident to everybody either in America or in Europe. That is why they said self-evident and not evident to all mankind, and they were careful to point out that it is "We" who hold them to be thus.


Reason forces one to ask if these rights were self-evident to the "Negroes and mulattoes, Irish teagues and outlandish Jack-tars" that John Adams referred to who were the participants of the Boston Massacre. Or how about the poor or marginally employed young men who participated m the mob violence from 1765 to 1776.


We know by an act of omission that these self-evident rights did not apply to blacks. In 1688, John Locke appealed to Reason to write a justification for the Glorious Revolution of that year against King James II for depriving the English people of their natural rights of life, liberty, and property. What are these rights and what do we mean when we say "Life, Liberty, and Property"? Name one natural right that you have that society cannot take away through legislation and enforcement.


Why did Jefferson write about "Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness," and not about "Life, Liberty, and Property"? Keep in mind that Jefferson was asserting the rights and happiness for society as a whole and not the individual. In light of this word choice, how could the Declaration of Independence be seen as classic example of propaganda?


As you read through the document below, identify how Jefferson argues revolution is justified and how Great Britain has violated the colonists' (now Americans) natural rights. Be sure to identify specific examples.