This column appeared in the July 4, 1968 combined edition of The Atlanta Journal and The Atlanta Constitution.
“I turned to neither book nor pamphlet while writing the Declaration (of Independence,” wrote Thomas Jefferson.
The principles and language of John Locke’s “Second treatise of Government” and of Locke’s “Essay on Human Understanding” were so much a part of Jefferson’s mind that historians have concluded that the Jefferson mind unconsciously moved in grooves cut there by Locke’s philosophy.
The book was an epoch in human thought in its time. In that sense it was truly revolutionary. Locke viewed the human mind as a sheet of clean paper ready to be written upon by experience, which alone supplies the knowledge there impressed. He traced the source of all ideas to what he called sensation and reflection.
Certainly man was not endowed at birth with all his attributes nor was he located, by birth, in a situation, or caste, in which he would remain fixed and helpless in the face of forces all beyond his control.
The colonists, long before independence and revolution, had early begun to break the old ties of tradition and custom and to depend upon the experience gained by putting their own reason into the test and experience of trial and error.
A committee was assigned to prepare the Declaration of Independence. The writing of it was Jefferson’s.
It was said, in 1776, when persons had read what was to become one of the world’s most influential documents, that many would say, “Those are Jefferson’s words.”
Educated men among the colonists were familiar with Locke’s belief in an orderly universe operated by natural law. Locke said that men formed governments to protect their NATURAL rights.
Jefferson’s words are powerful. The Declaration and Tom Paine’s essay on rights of men had a profound effect when read to the non-bookish troops at Valley Forge at a time of desperate crisis in the revolution.
Neither Jefferson nor Locke pronounced, it is well to remember a political theory. The Declaration of 1776 had enormous political effect. But it was not a political theory. The Declaration described man’s experience of the past and his hope for the future. His rights were not “political” — they were, instead, to be assumed in the inherent nature of things. Man aspired to an orderly society that could enable him to have them.
“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.”
Some men quibble. Jefferson was not saying that all have equal talents or intelligence — they are equal in the sight of their Creator. Did he have slaves or Indians in mind? Perhaps not directly. But the principle was there — all men are equally endowed by their Creator with the unquenchable desire to have their natural rights — those common to all men.
Today’s many social protests are a part of progress — if one is willing to see them as such. The Boston Tea Party, the fighting at Lexington and Concord, all had preceded the Declaration. Jefferson later urged amending the Constitution whenever necessary to protect human rights.
All Americans know that many adjustments have been long overdue in fully establishing human rights and equal protection of laws. The balance is not yet complete.
Historians may well write that many of our protests of this and past years were a sign of progress toward the objective of the Declaration of 1776 — that a stronger and better America will emerge from them.