While we can admire the eloquence of Thomas Jefferson’s pen, and regard with awe his sweeping vision of the natural rights of human beings, I think that it is important to remember that the Declaration of Independence was meant to serve a very specific purpose. Though it has come to be regarded as a sort of statement on the philosophical foundations of the United States of America, it is also contains a very specific list of grievances, and uses language that is not quite as revolutionary as one might assume.
One thing that becomes apparent on first reading the Declaration is its preoccupation with the notion of rights. Now I don’t suppose this comes as much of a surprise. After all, wasn't the American Revolution really a battle over rights? Over who possessed them and by what authority? Thing is, though, the rights that the Declaration discusses can arguably be fit into two different categories, radical and conservative.
The radical rights are the ones that come to mind first, I'm sure. The right to “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness,” is, after all, fundamental to the liberal-democratic view of the world which most of us in the West (or East or wherever) share. And what could have been more radical in the 18th century than to say that all people possessed a right to liberty? Wasn't that the age of kings and emperors? Weren't governments in that era based on tradition, and order, and discipline?
The answer, to all of these questions, is yes. Yes, it was a radical thing that Jefferson and his colleagues did when they asserted the “unalienable rights” of all human beings. And yes, the 18th century was dominated by governments that valued precedent and stability over freedom and liberality. But the fact is that the Declaration gives over far more space to conservative rights, based in tradition and precedent, than radical ones. And even among his radical assertions, Jefferson drew on established, though untested, principles.
But perhaps I get ahead of myself. I’ll return to the radical elements of the Declaration in short order. For now, let’s discuss these conservative rights.
Among the accusations that the Declaration levels at the British monarch, many claim that his actions or inactions violated some right or privilege traditionally enjoyed by the colonists. By Jefferson’s estimation it seems that George III wasn't guilty of violating abstract philosophical principles, but of breaking with the laws that had governed the Thirteen Colonies for over a century. Some of the accusations are fairly explicit, claiming that the king wished his American subjects to “relinquish the Right of Representation in the Legislature,” that he had invaded “the Rights of the People,” that he had attempted to subject the colonists to “a Jurisdiction foreign to [their] Constitution, and unacknowledged by [their] laws,” and that he was guilty of “taking away [their] Charters, abolishing [their] most valuable Laws, and altering fundamentally the Forms of [their] Governments.” Other claims were more implicit, and seemed to refer to some unspoken precedent or covenant that the king’s actions had violated. Among these are the accusations that George III had “obstructed the Administration of Justice,” that he had kept among the colonists, “in Times of Peace, Standing Armies, without the consent of [their] Legislature,” and that he was guilty of, “cutting off [their] Trade with all Parts of the World,” “imposing taxes on [the colonists] without [their] Consent,” and, “depriving [them], in many Cases, of the Benefits of Trial by Jury.”
This is heady stuff, to be sure, but it’s far from revolutionary. I say this because while Jefferson and his colleagues certainly developed a novel conception of their rights over the course of the Revolution, they undoubtedly began by first trying to reaffirm their traditional rights as Englishmen.
Allow me to clarify.
By the standards of the 18th century, the English were a people that were peculiarly aware of their rights. This was the result of a series of incidents that had unfolded over the course of the 17th century: three civil wars, the beheading of a king, a period of republican government, the restoration of the monarchy, and a bloodless, but extremely significant, revolution. Over the course of this long, and rather bizarre, sequence of events the people of England became very conscious of the dangers of unchecked monarchical power and of the importance of protecting what they believed were their traditional rights. In 1689, as a means of guarding against any future abuse of power by the crown, the most important of these rights were written into a bill that subsequently became an Act of Parliament.
These rights included:
1. A prohibition against royal interference with the law or the administration of justice
2. The right of taxation only through the consent of parliament
3. A bar against standing armies being raised in time of peace without the consent of parliament
4. An injunction against royal interference in the election of members of parliament
5. A guarantee that the freedom of speech and debates of parliament shall not be questioned or impeached by any court or body outside of parliament itself
This “Bill of Rights” became the foundation of what it still referred to as the Britain’s unwritten Constitution. More to the point, however, it would also have been the foundation of what people like Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and Benjamin Franklin believed where their rights as Englishmen. They had, after all, been raised in a political and social climate that attached a great deal of significance to English history in general and the Bill of Rights in particular. Thus when Jefferson claimed that the colonists had a right to have their laws respected and their streets free of soldiers he was not asking for something that was particularly revolutionary or radical. Rather, he was asserting what he believed were his, and his fellow colonists, rights as British citizens.