Persistent houseflies echoed throughout the solitude of the second story parlor room, interrupted only by the sound of passing carriages on the street below. A young red haired Virginian was writing with a sense of duty and passion.
Anxiety and excitement raced through his thoughts at composing a document considered high treason by the British crown. He structured each word and sentence careful and deliberately, drawing on his knowledge of literature, history and religion; all the while wondering the fate of his life, family, and farm.
Thomas Jefferson held his portable writing desk, of his own design, on his lap as he moved at a brisk pace crafting the Declaration of Independence during the increasing warm Philadelphia days of June 1776. He pulled the phrases and ideas from his mind, yet never denied the fact that his writing was far from original. Each sentence was built on the backs of former republics, history, and Judeo-Christian values. His most famous words still echo through history today – “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
He was selected to draft the famous document by the committee of five – John Adams, Ben Franklin, Roger Sherman, and Robert R. Livingston. John Adams would later say that he was offered the job, but differed the task to Jefferson saying, “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.”*
While Jefferson later recalled that he was selected by the committee and there was no such conversation as stated by Adams. Both explanations were not revealed until later in their old age and may be a result of waning memories more than competing egos. Either way, no matter who would have written the Declaration, the wording would have remained very close to the actual document. People of the time were inspired by the same authors.
Roughly four years before Jefferson’s draft of the Declaration, Samuel Adams wrote The Rights of the Colonist and stated that, “…the Natural Rights of the Colonists are these First a Right to Life; Secondly to Liberty; thirdly to Property; together with the Right to support and defend them in the best manner they can.” The only difference from the Declaration was Samuel’s reference to property, which was removed and replaced with “pursuit of happiness.”
Even the writings of Samuel Adams can be traced back further to a gentleman by the name of John Locke and his book, Two Treatises of Government. It is here that we first read the echos of the Declaration of Independence when Locke wrote, “That being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty or possessions.”
Even the use of, “pursuit of happiness” most likely came from the writings of Locke. In his Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Part I, Locke wrote the following: “As therefore the highest perfection of intellectual nature lies in a careful and constant pursuit of true and solid happiness… is the necessary foundation of our liberty.”
These rumblings of revolution began in the late 1600’s, but would take roughly one hundred years before the first musket blasts were fired in defense of these principles.
What is the result of these famous words? These great men set up the secret formula, an equation never tried before in government. Instead of building an all powerful government, ruled by kings or dictators, they embarked on a new experiment – self government. A government where each person is free to live their life and tend their property as they see fit, so long as it does not infringe on the life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness of another.
* McCullough, David. John Adams. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001. Print.