July 23, 2019

A Survey of Influences on the Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution

Richard Zahn

The United States of America:  Foundation of the Republic

A Survey of Influences on the Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution

By Richard Zahn

I have long been interested in exploring how the past has informed our present; how ideas from history converge and coalesce into ideals that we hold dear today.  We think of history as a series of events that sit on a timeline, linear from left to right.  But history is happening in every moment; real-time mutations of all that we know, all that has ever been, being re-shaped by current events, politics, emotion, perception, and all manner of how we create the stories of our lives.

In that spirit, I humbly present this article touching upon the various philosophers, writers and source materials that formed the basis for the ideology of the United States of America.

What follows is by no means an academic overview or an in-depth survey, but rather a summary of some broad ideas I have gathered relating to the establishment of the U.S.A.; specifically, the influences that guided our country’s Founding Fathers as they drafted the Declaration of Independence and later, the U. S. Constitution.  These ideas can be explored in more depth within the various books and essays referenced below, as well as in two terrific volumes – “The Democracy Reader” (1992) edited by Diane Ravitch and“American Scripture” (1997) by Pauline Maier.

What I find most interesting about these works is that for centuries people grasped at the ideas of Democracy, and wrestled with its meaning, without truly coalescing it into a working model for a society.  A hundred years after colonizing America, one could see the seeds beginning to sprout, but Democracy as we know it today really begin to grow in 1776, with the drafting of the Declaration of Independence.

Over the course of countless generations, people thought long and hard about the best ways for humans to live with one another, independent yet interdependent.  The United States today, with all of its flaws, remains one of the greatest examples of the ideals that people live, fight and die for, even to this day.

The Greek Foundation

Thucydides – 460-400 B.C. 

Thucydides, the son of a wealthy aristocrat in Athens, became a general in the Athenian fleet, but was exiled after a military defeat, spending the next two decades in Thrace.  His essay “The Peloponnesian War” was created during his time in exile.  

Written more than 2500 years ago, Thucydides recorded many ideas that influenced the cultural and legal underpinnings of our society today by giving his account of the statesmanPericles’ oration at the burial of the first Athenians killed in the war against Sparta.  “It is a ringing defense of both Athenian patriotism and the universal values of tolerance, diversity, free trade, and the rule of law.” (The Democracy Reader):

Let me say that our system of government does not copy the institutions of our neighbours. It is more the case of our being a model to others, than of our imitating anyone else.

Our constitution is called a democracy because power is in the hands not of a minority but of the whole people. When it is a question of settling private disputes, everyone is equal before the law; when it is a question of putting one person before another in positions of public responsibility, what counts is not membership of a particular class, but the actual ability which the man possess.

No one, so long as he has it in him to be of service to the state, is kept in political obscurity because of poverty. And, just as our political life is free and open, so is our day-to-day life in our relations with each other.

We do not get into a state with our next-door neighbour if he enjoys himself in his own way, nor do we give him the kind of black looks which, though they do no real harm, still do hurt people's feelings. We are free and tolerant in our private lives; but in public affairs we keep the law. This is because it commands our deep respect.

Socrates, Plato, Aristotle

Three Greek philosophers contributed mightily to our dialogue about the nature of Democracy.  Socrates is in many ways the quintessential democratic hero, having been tried and executed in the late Athenian democracy on charges of heresy and corruption of the young.  This was a man who literally “asked too many questions,” and paid the ultimate price for doing so.

Socrates’ student, Plato, left Athens in disgust after his teacher’s death, returning 12 years later to found the Athenian Academy, where he taught for 40 years. 

Plato’s most famous student was Aristotle, and his work built upon that of Socrates and Plato.  The result of their inquiries and meditations essentially laid the foundations of Western philosophy and science.  

The Greeks passed on to the west a spirit of rational inquiry that carries on to this day. Indeed, W. H.Auden said that "had Greek civilization never existed we would never have become fully conscious, which is to say that we would never have become, for better or worse, fully human."

A notable passage that related to the concept of representative government comes from the “Ship ofState” passage in Plato’s “Republic”. Below is a summary of this passage from a philosophy forum posted on the Frostburg State University website:

Democratic self-government does not work, according to Plato, because ordinary people have not learned how to run the ship of state. They are not familiar enough with such things as economics, military strategy, conditions in other countries, or the confusing intricacies of law and ethics. They are also not inclined to acquire such knowledge.

The effort and self-discipline required for serious study is not something most people enjoy. In their ignorance they tend to vote for politicians who beguile them with appearances and nebulous talk, and they inevitably find themselves at the mercy of administrations and conditions over which they have no control because they do not understand what is happening around them. They are guided by unreliable emotions more than by careful analysis, and they are lured into adventurous wars and victimized by costly defeats that could have been entirely avoided.

One of the roots of the U.S. Declaration of Independence can be found in Aristotle’s Politics, whose language foreshadows the “Life, liberty and pursuit of Happiness” line:

The basis of a democratic state is liberty; which, according to the common opinion of men, can only be enjoyed in such a state; this they affirm to be the great end of every democracy. One principle of liberty is for all to rule and be ruled in turn, and indeed democratic justice is the application of numerical not proportionate equality; whence it follows that the majority must be supreme, and that whatever the majority approve must be the end and the just.

Every citizen, it is said, must have equality, and therefore in a democracy the poor have more power than the rich, because there are more of them, and the will of the majority is supreme. This, then, is one note of liberty which all democrats affirm to be the principle of their state. Another is that a man should live as he likes. This, they say, is the privilege of a freeman, since, on the other hand, not to live as a man likes it the mark of a slave. This is the second characteristic of democracy, whence has arisen the claim of men to be ruled by none, if possible, or, if this is impossible, to rule and be ruled in turns; and so it contributes to the freedom based upon equality.

Aristotle stated that "man is by nature a political animal," and through his work can be found his thoughts on the nature of democracy, the meaning of citizenship, and the role of education in society.

Magna Carta

The Magna Carta was the Great Charter of English liberties granted by King John in 1215.  Considered one of the most influential documents ever published, it resonates deeply as a battle cry against oppression and for protecting individual liberties.

America’s distrust of concentrated political power can be found in the tenets of the Magna Carta, which also served as a template for the Bill of Rights, outlining protections and immunities from the government, such as freedom from unlawful searches and seizures, a right to a speedy trial, a right to a jury trial in both a criminal and a civil case, and protection from loss of life, liberty, or property without due process of law.

The fact that nine of the 26 provisions in the Bill of Rights can be traced back to the Magna Carta underscores just how important that medieval document was to the foundation of our Republic.

The Enlightenment

“Without the Enlightenment as the philosophical basis of this country, one can only imagine how different it would be today.Important guarantees of human and natural rights, expressions of freedom and the rights of citizens to have free choice and practice religious freedom are all vital aspects in America still. Locke, Newton, and other Enlightenment thinkers put forth ideas about liberty and personal will that went on to be key aspects in the most important documents in America such as the Declaration ofIndependence and the Constitution.” - NicoleSmith, “The Influence of the Enlightenment on The Formation of the United States”

The Enlightenment of 17th-century Europe had the most immediate impact on the framers of the United States Constitution.  Emerging from the darkness of the Middle Ages, a number of the era’s free thinkers contributed to the ideas that framed the Founding Fathers’ objectives:

In England, Thomas Hobbes concluded that people are incapable of ruling themselves (“Leviathan”) due to their self-interested nature.

From France, we gained a more optimistic view of democracy by way of Voltaire, Rousseau and Montesquieu.  Montesquieu’s “Spirit of Laws” is considered one of the most remarkable works of the 18th century.  A sprawling opus, it surveyed general law and different forms of government to military matters, taxation, the national character, and economics, among other subjects.  “Spirit of Laws” also suggested a separation of powers into branches of government similar to the one of the U.S.  

John Locke, a 17th century Englishmen, redefined the nature of government. Although he agreed with Hobbes regarding the self-interested nature of humans, he was much more optimistic about their ability to use reason to avoid tyranny (see "Second Treatise of Government"). Locke's political thought was grounded in the notion of social contract between citizens and in the importance of toleration, especially in matters of religion.

Locke maintained that the powers of government were limited by the authority granted by the free consent of the individuals subscribing to the social compact.  Locke’s work, in particular, influenced all manner of Thomas Jefferson’s political thought.

Jefferson, George Washington, James Madison and others were quite familiar with the writings of the Enlightenment philosophers, and took great measures to ensure the values of liberty, equality and a new form of justice were incorporated into the documents put forth by the Founding Fathers.

America in the 1700s:  A Revolution Brewing

For well over a century, the American colonies were generally proud to be British, but also considered themselves strongly independent and self-sufficient.  The formation of colonial legislatures contributed to the feeling that the colonies could manage their affairs without influence and interference from across the Atlantic.  Meanwhile, the expense of the French and Indian War (1754-1763) left England deeply in debt, and King George III turned to a series of taxation measures that infuriated the colonists.

As the Stamp Act, the Townshend Act and the Tea Act led to greater and greater tensions and conflict between the colonists and British Parliament, the seeds of the Declaration of Independence had already been sown by Enlightenment writers.  In fact, in the course of the Revolutionary era (1750–1783), many arguments were pursued that sought to resolve the dispute surrounding Parliamentary sovereignty, taxation, self-governance and representation.  Even the Revolutionary War clarion call of “No taxation without representation” was a phrase that had been used previously in Ireland for more than a generation.

After the Boston Tea Party and the response from King George III with the Intolerable Acts, 12 colonies formed the First Continental Congress and voted to stop trading with Britain until the Intolerable Acts were repealed, and to start training colonists to fight.

In March 1775 Patrick Henry made the most famous speech of his career. Henry warned Virginia’s militias to prepare for war with Britain.  "I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!" were the last words spoken at the meeting by Patrick Henry. War was inevitable.


The Declaration of Independence

In America in the late 1700s emerged the nascent struggle and defiant fervor of a people seeking to define a country and assert its independence from an increasingly oppressive and tyrannical British ruler.  It would take a lot of thinking – and a tremendous amount of literary input – to put down on paper what was on the mind of a young nation. Fortunately, in 1769, Thomas Jefferson had a summer reading list that would inform the words that he wrote and which were revised many times in committees and then by Congress.  He summoned the following texts from England, every one of them dealing with the theories of government:

Jefferson’s Summer Reading List, 1769

William Petyt – Petits Jus Parliamentum
William Hakewell – Modus tenendi Parliamentum
Thomas Harris to Lord Guernsey – Determinations of the House of Commons
Lord George Gurdon – History of Parliament
John Locke – Two Treatises on Government
Jean-Jacques Burlamaqui – Natural Law
Anthony Ellys – Tracts on Liberty
Ferdinand Warner – History of Ireland, History of Civil Wars
William Petty – Survey of Ireland
Adam Ferguson – Civil Society
Dugald Stewart – Political Economy
Montesquieu – Spirit of Laws
Simon Pelloutier – History of the Celts
Temple Stanyan – Grecian History

The background reading Jefferson dug into that summer informed many of the concepts that ended up in the final draft of the Declaration of Independence.  Some have argued that much of the Declaration and other writings of Jefferson were influenced (mostly plagiarized) by John Locke's writings.

The last two books on the list contributed to Jefferson’s view that the ancient states had treated their colonists liberally, their power based on “the free consent of the people.”

The Declaration of Independence was considered “merely revolutionary,” in that the writers sought to extend support for their cause and enhance the chances of victory.

Abraham Lincoln, in 1859, lauded Jefferson for introducing into that “merely revolutionary document, an abstract truth applicable to all men and all times … a rebuke and a stumbling-block to the very harbingers of re-appearing tyranny and oppression.”

Lincoln added to the canon the “sacred text” of his Gettysburg Address, in which he summarized the deep convictions of a generations’ worth of great thinkers who pondered the implications of their revolutionary heritage, cuminating with the line:  “…We here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Taken together, the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights form a wonderful balance of both aspirational and practical goals.  The ideals of individualism and freedom, tempered by the checks and balances that have been woven into the fabric of our laws and procedures of government, make the United States a unique society organized by a distinct set of principles.

The Strength 

The United States is often visualized as a “melting pot” – a fusion of different nationalities, ethnicities and cultures; a “city upon a hill”. A new promised land, even.

Jimmy Carter swaps out the melting pot idea with another image: “…Not a melting pot but a beautiful mosaic. Different people, different beliefs, different yearnings, different hopes, different dreams.” 

However one cares to view the national identity of the United States, it is clear that the words that are revered as the sacred text of our culture – the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights – are the distillation of more than two millennia of critical thinking.  Connecting the dots from the Greeks to the Romans to the Middle Ages and the Enlightenment, one can see that the intense intellectual energy in the late 18th century in a newly formed country created the perfect environment for defining who we are as a nation.

We are a unique country founded on a principle that all men are created equal.  And these documents continue to guide us today in defining who we are as a people.  The United States is the only country in the world not aligned around religion or tribalism. We coalesce our national identity around truths not tribes, religion, colors, gender.  We are a people who live with an ideal that all men are created equal.  Although we fall short, we pursue these ideals with an incredible fervor. 

By considering the many influences that contributed – over thousands of years – to the documents we as a society hold as sacred, we are reminded that these values endure because they are the best that we, as humans, have managed to figure out so far.