Enlightenment ideas, the Declaration of Independence and American Revolution
may not have even happened. The Enlightenment encouraged reform and urged
people to use their reason to solve problems and reach new conclusions
(Harrison et al 470). That is precisely what American independence was founded
on, and those ideas provided the impetus and courage to formally break from the
powerful mother country. In truth, breaking away from Great Britain was a
highly risky and bold move, and Thomas Jefferson realized that declaring
independence needed to be done carefully but assertively. Thus, he crafted an
argument using Enlightenment ideas as support for the decision to break away.
The Enlightenment concepts of reason, change and progress, nature, and Deism in
the Declaration of Independence demonstrate the credibility and thoughtfulness
of the argument for independence, making the intent of the document sincere
despite its audacity.
As a whole, the Declaration of
Independence is firmly structured around a reason-based argument, which
provides clarity and shows that serious thought went into its creation. Its
structure has three parts: the beginning, which describes how government should
be, the middle, a list of grievances against King George III, and the end,
which concludes that independence is justified. Interestingly, its structure
resembles a scientific experiment. The beginning is like a hypothesis, making a
conjecture that the colonies have the right to independence. Then, the middle
is like data, since it is all evidence that could help prove the hypothesis.
Lastly, the end draws the conclusion that the evidence supports the hypothesis.
Furthermore, the end eliminates sources of error in the decision to be
independent in that it describes the countless measures to which the colonies
had gone for support to no avail (Jefferson). This structure makes independence
a provable, reasoned conclusion, reached through nothing other than empiricism.
Because it is set up as proved, scientific fact, the case for independence is credible
and hard to refute, despite the fact that it opposes history and tradition.
fact, opposing tradition with reasoned argument was one of the hallmarks of
Enlightenment thought (Harrison et al 469). This was because challenging
traditional ideas could help bring about change and progress. Jefferson
reflects the spirit of change in the Declaration of Independence, explaining
that the change of independence is the only way to protect the peoples' happiness.
Essentially, Jefferson holds that the purpose of government should be to ensure
the rights of "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," and when a
government does not uphold those rights, then it must be changed (Jefferson).
Still, he says that change should not come from "light and transient Causes,"
but only when grievances have become too great to bear (Jefferson). By doing
this, Jefferson negates any accusation that declaring independence was a hasty
or irrational decision and instead gives it the credibility of prudence. He
also describes change as not just a desire, but as a necessity. The first line
of the Declaration calls independence for the colonies "necessary" and later
calls it the "Right of the People" (Jefferson). Describing independence in
these terms, where it is the only possibility for progress, further halts
arguments against it. Overall, Jefferson defines government's purpose and says
that if that purpose is not upheld, then people have the right to change the government
to secure their personal freedoms.
recurring idea of freedoms in the Declaration demonstrates the Enlightenment
concept of perfection in natural human existence. Jefferson uses the natural
ideal combined with Deism to give the argument for independence one more source
of credibility, that of divine right. For Deists, God "revealed himself in
nature and through reason" (Reid). In particular, human nature was considered
good; societal structures made people bad. Thus, even though God was far away
in the Deists' view, God was still beneficent and would show his goodness when
things existed in their natural states. This view turns the attempt to create a
more natural state of government into a God-ordained privilege. As expected,
this view seen in the Declaration, where Jefferson says that the "Laws of
Nature and of Nature's God entitle them" to break political bands that do not
serve and promote the natural existence of humanity (Jefferson). However, even
though Jefferson invokes divine right to support the case for independence, he
makes the intention of the new government very clear: to serve people, not God.
Though people are "endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights,"
the point of government is not to recognize the Creator's goodness but rather
to uphold and protect those rights for the people (Jefferson). Furthermore,
though Jefferson and his compatriots rely on the "Protection of the divine
Providence," they pledge not to the divine, but "pledge to each other" in a
very human-centered way (Jefferson). Essentially, Jefferson uses God to give
the argument for independence credibility by authority, but his Deist,
naturalistic way of thinking allows him to turn the focus away from God and
direct it instead toward human nature and goodness.
declaring independence was such a bold thing to do, Jefferson provided plenty
of reasons why he and the rest of the Founding Fathers were doing so. Those
reasons reflected their Enlightenment views, since they focused on concepts
such as reason, change and progress, nature, and Deism. Of course, no matter
how carefully crafted or tight the arguments of the Declaration were, it still
brought about a war. When people today look back on Jefferson's words, though, they
can still see evidence of the hope that reason and knowledge would be the true
purveyors of change, not military action. The ideas of independence took just
as much courage to declare as to fight for. Truly, the Founding Fathers lived
out the dare to know.
Sullivan, R., and Sherman, D. A Short
History of Western Civilization, 6th ed. New
York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1985.
Thomas. Declaration of Independence. Retrieved
Reid, Daniel G,
ed. Dictionary of Christianity in
America. Dowers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press,