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conscious; and perhaps never does he rise before us with more dignity, with more truth, than when, late in his lifetime, hurt by the captious and jangling words of disparagement then recently put into writing by his old comrade, to the effect that the Declaration of Independence “contained no new ideas, that it is a commonplace compilation, its sentences hackneyed in Congress for two years before, and its essence contained in Otis's pamphlet,” Jefferson quietly remarked that perhaps these statements might “all be true: of that I am not to be the judge. ... Whether I had gathered my ideas from reading or reflection, I do not know. I know only that I turned to neither book nor pamphlet while writing it. I did not consider it as any part of my charge to invent new ideas altogether and to offer no sentiment which had ever been expressed before."*
Before passing from this phase of the subject, however, it should be added that, while the Declaration of Independence lacks originality in the sense just indicated, in another and perhaps in a higher sense, it possesses originality-it is individualized by the character and by the genius of its author. Jefferson gathered up the thoughts anà emotions and even the characteristic phrases of the people for whom he wrote, and these he perfectly incorporated with what was already in his mind, and then to the music of his own keen, rich, passionate, and enkindling style, he mustered them into that stately and triumphant procession wherein, as some of us still think, they will go marching on to the world's end.
There were then in Congress several other men who could have written the Declaration of Independence, and written it well—notably Franklin, either of the two Adamses, Richard Henry Lee, William Livingston, and, best of all, but for his own opposition to the measure, John Dickinson ; but had any one of ibiese other men written the Declaration of Independence, while it would have contained, doubtless, nearly the same topics and nearly the same great formulas of political statement, it would yet have been a wholly different composition from this of Jefferson's. No one at all familiar with his other writings, as well as with the writings of his chief contemporaries, could ever have a moment's doubt, even if the fact were not already notorious,
*“ The Writings of Thomas Jefferson,”H. A. Washington ed., vii., 305.
that this document was by Jefferson. He put into it something that was his own, and that no one else could have put there. He put himself into it—his own genius, his own moral force, his faith in God, his faith in ideas, his love of innovation, his passion for progress, his invincible enthusiasm, his intolerance of prescription, of injustice, of cruelty; his sympathy, his clarity of vision, his affluence of diction, his power to fling out great phrases which will long fire and cheer the souls of men struggling against political unrighteousness.
And herein lies its essential originality, perhaps the most precious, and, indeed, almost the only, originality ever attaching to any great literary product that is representative of its time. He made for himself no improper claim, therefore, when he directed that upon the granite obelisk at his grave should be carved the words: “Here was buried Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence.'
If the Declaration of Independence is now to be fairly judged by us, it must be judged with reference to what it was intended to be, namely, an impassioned manifesto of one party, and that the weaker party, in a violent race-quarrel ; of a party resolved, at last, upon the extremity of revolution, and already menaced by the inconceivable disaster of being defeated in the very act of armed rebellion against the mightiest military power on earth. This manifesto, then, is not to be censured because, being avowedly a statement of its own side of the quarrel, it does not also contain a moderate and judicial statement of the opposite side ; or because, being necessarily partisan in method, it is likewise both partisan and vehement in tone ; or because it bristles with accusations against the enemy so fierce and so unqualified as now to seem in some respects overdrawn; or because it resounds with certain great aphorisms about the natural rights of man, at which, indeed, political science cannot now smile, except to its own discomfiture and shameaphorisms which are likely to abide in this world as the chief source and inspiration of heroic enterprises among men for self-deliverance from oppression.
Taking into account, therefore, as we are bound to do, the circumstances of its origin, and especially its purpose as a solemn
* Randall, “ The Life of Thomas Jefferson," iii., 563.
and piercing appeal to mankind on behalf of a small and weak nation against the alleged injustice and cruelty of a great and powerful one, it still remains our duty to enquire whether, as has been asserted in our time, history must set aside either of the two central charges embodied in the Declaration of Independence.
The first of these charges afirms that the several acts ccmplained of by the colonists evinced “a design to reduce them under absolute despotism," and had as their “direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny” over the American people. Was this, indeed, a groundless charge, in the sense intended by the words “despotism ” and “tyranny ”—that is, in the sense commonly given to those words in the usage of the Englishspeaking race ? According to that usage, it was not an Oriental despotism that was meant, nor a Greek tyranny, nor a Roman, nor a Spanish. The sort of despot, the sort of tyrant, whom the English people, ever since the time of King John and especially during the period of the Stuarts, had been accustomed to look for and to guard against, was the sort of tyrant or despot that could be evolved out of the conditions of English political life. Furthermore, he was not by them expected to appear among them at the outset in the fully developed shape of a Philip or an Alva in the Netherlands. They were able to recognize him, they were prepared to resist him, in the earliest and most incipient stage of his being—at the moment, in fact, when he should make his first attempt to gain all power over his people, by assuming the single power to take their property without their consent. Hence it was, as Edmund Burke pointed out in the House of Commons only a few weeks before the American Revolution entered upon its military phase, that:
" The great contests for freedom were from the earliest times chiefly upon the question of taxing. Most of the contests in the ancient commonwealths turned primarily on the right of election of magistrates, or on the balance among the several orders of the state. The question of money was not with them so immediate. But in England it was otherwise. On this point of taxes the ablest pens and most eloquent tongues have been exercised, the greatest spirits have acted and suffered
They took infinite pains to inculcate, as a fundamental principle, that in all monarchies the people must in effect, themselves, mediately or immediately, possess the power of granting their own money, or no shadow of liberty could subsist. The colonies draw from you, as with their life-blood, these ideas and principles. Their love of liberty, as with you, fixed and attached on this specific
point of taxing. Liberty might be safe or might be endangered in twenty other particulars without their being much pleased or alarmed. Here they felt its pulse, and as they found that beat, they thought themselves sick or sound."*
Accordingly, the meaning which the English race on both sides of the Atlantic were accustomed to attach to the words “ tyranny” and “despotism,” was a meaning to some degree ideal; it was a meaning drawn from the extraordinary political sagacity with which that race is endowed, from their extraordinary sensitiveness as to the use of the taxing-power in government, from their instinctive perception of the commanding place of the taxing power among all the other forms of power in the state, from their perfect assurance that he who holds the purse with the power to fill it and to empty it, holds the key of the situation
can maintain an army of his own, can rule without consulting Parliament, can silence criticism, can crush opposition, can strip his subjects of every vestige of political life; in other words, he can make slaves of them, he can make a despot and a tyrant of himself. Therefore, the system which in the end might develop into results so palpably tyrannic and despotic, they bluntly called a tyranny and a despotism in the beginning. To say, therefore, that the Declaration of Independence did the same, is to say that it spoke good English. Of course, history will be ready to set aside the charge thus made in language not at all liable to be misunderstood, just so soon as history is ready to set aside the common opinion that the several acts of the British government, from 1764 to 1776, for laying and enforcing taxation in America, did evince a somewhat particular and systematic design to take away some portion of the property of the American people without their consent.
The second of the two great charges contained in the Declaration of Independence, while intimating that some share in the blame is due to the British Parliament and to the British people, yet fastens upon the king himself as the one person chiefly responsible for the scheme of American tyranny therein set forth, and calminates in the frank description of him as “a prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a tyrant.” Is this accusation of George the Third now to be set aside as unhistoric ? Was that king, or was he not, chiefly re
. "Speech on moving bis Resolu'ions for Concilition with the Colonies," March 22, 1775. "The Works of Edmu d Burke," ii., 120-121.
sponsible for the American policy of the British government between the years 1764 and 1776 ? If he was so, then the historic soundness of the most important portion of the Declaration of Independence is vindicated.
Fortunately, this question can be answered without hesitation, and in a few words; and for these few words, an American writer of to-day, conscious of his own bias of nationality, will rightly prefer to cite such words as have been uttered upon the subject by the ablest English historians of our time. Upon their statements alone it must be concluded that George the Third ascended his throne with the fixed purpose of resuming to the crown many of those powers which, by the constitution of England, did not then belong to it, and that in this purpose, at least during the first twenty-five years of his reign, he substantially succeeded-himself determining what should be the policy of each administration, what opinions his ministers should advocate in Parliament, and what measures Parliament itself should adopt. Says Sir Erskine May:
“The king desired to undertake personally the chief administration of public affairs, to direct the policy of his ministers, and himself to distribute the patronage of the crown. He was ambitious not only to reign, but to govern." "Strong as were the ministers, the king was resolved to wrest all power from their hands, and to exercise it himself.” “But what was this in effect but to assert that the king should be his own minister ? The king's tactics were fraught with danger, as well to the crown itself as to the constitutional liberties of the people.” *
Already, prior to the year 1778, according to Lecky, the king had “laboriously built up” in England a “system of personal government”; and it was because he was unwilling to have this system disturbed that he then refused,
"In defiance of the most earnest representations of his own minister and of the most eminent politicians of every party ... to send for the greatest of living statesmen at the moment when the empire appeared to be in the very agonies of dissolution. . Either Chatham or Rockingham would have insisted that the policy of the country should be directed by its responsible ministers and not dictated by an irresponsible sovereign."
This refusal of the king to pursue the course which was called for by the constitution, and which would have taken the control of the policy of the government out of his hands, was, according to the same great historian, an act “the most criminal
. These sentonces occur in the chapter on the "The Influence of the Crown during the Reign of George III.,” in Sir Erskine May's " Constitutional History of England," 1., 11, 12, 14-15.