Next month we will celebrate 232 years since the writing of The Declaration of Independence. Its history and its meaning must never be lost in the miasma of today’s political upheavals. In spite of the fact that powerful politicians and would-be king-makers of today trample on the precious doctrines found in this document, it is critical to keep these doctrines close to our hearts and memories. One day, when Americans are fed up with the false doctrines of freedom, these true doctrines of freedom and liberty contained in this document will be as welcome and as celebrated as it was in 1776.
Dr. Cleon Skousen has written a beautiful narrative of the writing, purpose, and meaning of the Declaration of Independence. Most of the following are the words of Dr. Skousen on this subject, taken from pages 420-425 of The Majesty of God’s Law.
Ever since 1639 when Connecticut first undertook to set up its government according to the first chapter of Deuteronomy, there had been an inclination to look to the Bible for political guidelines. But the principal roadblock was the fact that Moses had set up a theocracy — a government under the immediate direction of God and his prophets. How could the Founders take the principles of God’s law in the Bible and set them up without the divine guidance of either God or his prophets?
In a sense, they already had the needed guidance in the Bible itself. The scripture describes exactly how to set up God’s law. But could it be administered justly? Could its various powers be kept in balance? Charles de Montesquieu had already written about the genius of setting up the functions of government in three separate branches — the legislature, the executive and the judiciary — but who would keep these powerful departments separated? And who would prevent them from abusing one another or having one department usurping authority over the other departments?
It was John Adams who came to grips with these questions in January, 1776. He was an untiring advocate for the separation-of-powers with a strong system of checks and balances. This was the way that power could be safely delegated to man in a democratic republican government.
But for the work of John Adams to even be effective, the American colonies would have to gird up their loins and declared themselves completely separate from the king and Parliament of England.
It is interesting that no one deserves more credit for bringing this separation about than John Adams and his immediate Whig associates in the Congress. Beginning in 1776 they worked day and night and used every conceivable political strategy to get to the point where Richard Henry Lee of Virginia could introduce a resolution on June 7, 1776, calling for a declaration of independence.
There was an immediate uproar in the Congress with noisy delegates from several of the colonies claiming they had no authority to vote on such a radical proposal until they had the approval from their respective colonial assemblies back home. It was therefore agreed to postpone the vote until July 2nd.
Meanwhile, a committee was appointed to draft the Declaration of Independence and present it to the Congress on the same date as Richard Henry Lee’s resolution. The five members of the committee in order of their ages were Benjamin Franklin (70), Roger Sherman (55), John Adams (41), Thomas Jefferson (33) and Robert Livingston (30).
When the committee convened, Jefferson immediately proposed that John Adams be authorized to prepare the initial draft. John Adams describes what happened:
“Jefferson proposed to me to make the draft. I said: ‘I will not. You should do it.’
“Jefferson: ‘Oh no! Why will you not? You ought to do it.’
“Adams: ‘I will not!’
“Adams: ‘Reasons enough.’
“Jefferson: ‘What can be your reasons?’
“Adams: ‘Reason first — You are a Virginian, and a Virginian ought to appear at the head of this business. Reason second — I am obnoxious, suspected, and unpopular. You are very much otherwise. Reason third — You can write ten times better than I can.’
“Jefferson: ‘Well, if you are decided, I will do as well as I can.'”
Thomas Jefferson labored over the Declaration of Independence seventeen days. It is generally assumed he took most of that time writing out the long catalog of crimes by the king and the Parliament which justified the separation of the colonies from the mother country. However, this does not appear to have been the case. Here is the reason why.
Jefferson had already written three successive drafts for a proposed constitution for Virginia. He had planned to present the latest version to the Virginia legislature in Williamsburg; however, his trip was interrupted when a dispatch arrived instructing him to go to Philadelphia as Virginia’s delegate to Congress.
He obediently set out on his journey and arrived at his new post on May 14, 1776, with the third constitutional proposal in his pocket. This draft contained the lengthy list of offenses which he felt was a full justification for Virginia setting up a separate government.
In his new committee assignment at the Congress, it would have taken Jefferson only a day or two to copy this list of offenses into the Declaration of Independence and then use it as a full justification for all of the colonies to demand their independence.
Assuming this to be the case, we are led to conclude that Jefferson spent the rest of the fifteen or sixteen days poring over the ancient principles that he wanted incorporated in the first two paragraphs of the new Declaration of Independence.
These ancient principles constitute eight of the foundation stones of the newly contemplated American system of government and were carefully enunciated by Jefferson with classical brevity in these opening paragraphs. His views on each of these principles are rounded out in other writings, and from these various sources we are able to identify the following fundamental principles in the first two paragraphs of the Declaration of Independence:
When Jefferson presented the draft of the Declaration to the whole committee they were very pleased with it and only minor suggestions were made by John Adams and Benjamin Franklin.
On July 2 when the draft was presented to the Congress there was a lively discussion for two days. Some of the delegates from Tory states — such as New York — felt the list of offenses were too harsh and needed to be toned down for diplomatic reasons. In the end over sixty changes were made in the document, but not one of the ancient principles was deleted.
Neither Jefferson nor the Congress called this document the “Declaration of Independence.” It was the people who later gave the Declaration its immortal name.
It was a glowing tribute to the skill of Thomas Jefferson as a writer and to the patient molding of the Congress by John Adams that finally brought this highly diversified body of delegates to the crowning summit of unity where each of the new United States of America finally ratified the Declaration of Independence. It was July 4, 1776, which John Adams said he hoped Americans would celebrate from generation to generation as the birth date of the nation.
A short time after the Declaration of Independence was adopted, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin were the fore-most leaders assigned to formulate an official seal for the new nation.
As mentioned earlier, Jefferson — and several of the other Founders, including the Reverend Thomas Hooker, who wrote the constitution for Connecticut in 1649 — had discovered that the most substantive principles of representative government were those practiced by ancient Israel under the leadership of Moses. Jefferson had also studied the institutes of government of the Anglo-Saxons and had found that they were almost identical to those of the Israelites.
After a brief discussion it was decided that both of these ancient peoples should be represented on the great seal of the United States.
Here is Franklin’s description of the way he thought the Bible’s ancient Israel should be portrayed:
“Moses standing on the shore, and extending his hand over the sea, thereby causing the same to overwhelm Pharaoh who is sitting in an open chariot, a crown on his head and a sword in his hand. Rays from a pillar of fire in the clouds reaching to Moses, to express that he acts by command of the Deity. Motto: Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God.”
John Adams described what Jefferson proposed:
“Mr. Jefferson proposed: The children of Israel in the wilderness, led by a cloud by day, and a pillar of fire by night, and on the other side Hengist and Horsa, the Saxon chiefs, from whom we claim the honor of being descended and whose political principles and form of government we have assumed.”
Professor Gilbert Chinard, one of the distinguished biographers of Jefferson, states:
“Jefferson’s great ambition at that time was to promote a renaissance of Anglo-Saxon primitive institutions on the new continent. Thus presented, the American Revolution was nothing but the reclamation of the Anglo-Saxon birthright of which the colonists had been deprived by ‘a long train of abuses.’ Nor does it appear that there was anything in this theory which surprised or shocked his contemporaries; Adams apparently did not disapprove of it, and it would be easy to bring in many similar expressions of the same idea in documents of the time.”
As we mentioned earlier, on August 13, 1776 (about the time the committee was trying to design an official seal), Jefferson wrote to Edmund Pendleton to convince him that Virginia must abolish the remnants of feudalism and return to the “ancient principles.” He wrote:
“Are we not better for what we have hitherto abolished of the feudal system? Has not every restitution of the ancient Saxon laws had happy effects? Is it not better now that we return at once into that happy system of our ancestors, the wisest and most perfect ever yet devised by the wit of man, as it stood before the eighth century?”
Surely our system, as delivered to us by the Founders, was the wisest and most perfect.