Study Guide

Declaration of Independence Compare and Contrast

By Thomas Jefferson

  • John Locke, Second Treatise of Government (1690)

    This is a long text—a book really—much of which would be more appropriate for a philosophy course. Don't worry—you don't really need to know everything he says in it right now.

    Locke's theory on government, though, was hugely influential in the 18th century, and is directly referenced in the Declaration of Independence…as well as other documents supporting American independence.

    Ideas about government that we take for granted nowadays emerged during the Enlightenment, a period of philosophical revolution in Europe. The prominent Enlightenment thinkers were studied by the Founding Fathers, and their ideas made people around the world start to question the established order of human society.

    Locke's primary philosophical legacy is the idea of a contract between a government and its people. He claimed, contrary to what others had argued previously, that government was an institution created by the people for their own safety. Humans gave up some, but not all, of their freedoms for the protection and care of a government of their own design, and in return the government is responsible for upholding its purpose of caring for the people's welfare. (Source)

    Locke also discusses people's right to private property (woo-hoo!) which had a similarly lasting influence on political philosophy.

    Some of Locke's ideas may sound super familiar. For instance: "reason...teaches all mankind, who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions." (Source)

    Hmm. Sounds a lot like "life, liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness," doesn't it? Locke said it eighty years earlier, though.

    Locke also asserted that people were born equal in a nature, which of course sounds an awful lot like "all men are created equal." In fact, someone has kindly outlined some of the influences of the Second Treatise of Government on the Declaration of Independence here.

    The book contains a lot more than the strikingly similar-to-the-Constitution passages, and has chapters on the nature of war, slavery, property, and "paternal power" (relationships between spouses and family members), as well as several sections on government and civil society. Locke's concept of government being responsible to the people, though, is the most powerful and influential legacy of his in American politics, not to mention in nations around the world.

    As smart as the Founding Fathers were, the ideas and language used by Jefferson, Adams, and other revolutionary leaders didn't come out of nowhere, it was a continuation of political ideas going back to the Enlightenment.

    Thomas Edison famously said that "Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration," but in this case the inspiration percentage might be slightly higher. Although, to be honest, Jefferson could have been incredibly sweaty…there's really no way to know.

  • Massachusettensis, "Addressed: To the Inhabitants of the Province of Massachusetts Bay, December 26, 1774" (December 26, 1774)

    In 1774 and 1775, a series of essays was published in Massachusetts newspapers, primarily the Boston Gazette, from two authors, known as Novanglus and Massachusettensis. Massachusettensis supported British rule of the colonies and defended the royal government against the colonial rebelliousness. Novanglus responded by insisting that the colonies should govern themselves.

    Hopefully those…interesting names were meant to be, you know, interesting.

    Novanglus in real life was none other than our good friend John Adams—he believed he was responding to his former BFF Jonathan Sewall, but Massachusettensis was actually a lawyer named Daniel Leonard (whoops). This essay is an example of Massachusettensis' writing, which eloquently argues against the fight for independence.

    Massachusettensis claims that, like with previous examples throughout history, people who normally have little interest in government have been inspired into a frenzy, by others, who have misled them into thinking that they're under a state of tyranny:

    They begin by reminding the people of the elevated rank they hold in the universe, as men; that all men by nature are equal; that kings are but the ministers of the people; that their authority is delegated to them by the people for their good…Doubtless there have been instances where these principles have been inculcated to obtain a redress of real grievances, but they have been much oftener perverted to the worst of purposes…A small mistake, in point of policy, often furnishes a pretence [sic] to libel government, and persuade the people that their rulers are tyrants, and the whole government a system of oppression… the people are led to sacrifice real liberty to licentiousness, which gradually ripens into rebellion and civil war. (Source)

    Leonard argues that the unfortunate followers will eventually find themselves under a new form of real tyranny, brought about by the same people who are leading their revolt.

    Massachusettensis continues by discussing how the Whigs (anti-British congressmen) had been essentially holding congressmen hostage by punishing those didn't agree with them. Without naming names, he presents examples of men who lost their careers because they didn't go with the flow.

    The author writes that, "If a councellor [sic] opposed the violent measures of the whigs with any spirit, he lost his election the next May," and very capable politicians devoted to the colonies "were tumbled from their seats in disgrace. Thus…the political balance of the province was destroyed." (Source)

    In other words, anyone who disagrees risks losing his job, which means the government has become pretty insanely one-sided.

    Massachusettensis continues by defending royal governor Thomas Hutchinson (who Benjamin Franklin accidentally condemned around this time), by saying that the man was just doing his duty, and if the people had just followed his guidance and not put up a fight, everyone would have been happy.

    The author claims that judges were coerced into supporting the anti-British leaders, because those leaders controlled the judges' meager salaries. In addition, Massachusettensis brings up a vivid example of violence by recounting the tar and feathering of a Loyalist, a crazy-brutal event that was apparently watched by "thousands of spectators." (Source)

    The crux of the essay's argument is this:

    Those very persons that had made you believe that every attempt to strengthen government and save our charter was an infringement of your privileges, by little and little destroyed your real liberty, subverted your charter constitution, abridged the freedom of the house…They engrossed all the power of the province into their own hands. (Source)

    The way the author sees it, those colonial leaders stirring up hate against the British government are just attempting to consolidate power for themselves, by convincing the public that the current government is despotic and must be violently expelled. The people will find themselves under a real tyranny after the rabble-rousers succeed in separating the colonies from British rule. Given that movements like the American Revolution had failed more than they had succeeded until this point in history, can you blame him for being incredulous?

    The decision to declare independence in the 1770s wasn't universally supported, not only in the years leading up to the official Declaration, but even at the time of the Declaration itself. Up to the final vote there were delegates who thought it was too rash and quick of a decision. There were a number of people in the colonies who remained loyal to Britain, and found the passionate rhetoric and sometimes violent actions of the anti-British colonists to be extreme and unjust.

    Imagine that you're one of the people who still feel that the colonies are truly a part of Britain—how would you feel seeing people you know tarred and feathered? Or tea dumped into the ocean for spite? Although the Loyalists by 1774 were essentially fighting a losing battle, in public opinion if not yet on the battlefield, writers like Massachusettensis illustrate that Loyalists were around and could present convincing arguments of their own.

  • Thomas Gage, "A Proclamation" (June 12, 1775)

    Thomas Gage was the leading British military leader in the colonies before and during the American Revolution. His proclamation in June of 1775 was a final attempt, after the events of Lexington and Concord in April and the start of the war, to stop further conflict by offering a pardon to all those who laid down their weapons and protection to those loyal to the king.

    Well, almost all—he makes an exception for John Hancock and Samuel Adams, "whose offences are of too flagitious a nature" to avoid punishment. (Source)

    (By the way, "flagitious" means "shamefully wicked," so feel free to add that to your everyday vocab.)

    You've seen this move in pretty much any movie with an evil villain attempting to take over the world: submit to me, and I'll spare you. Gage wasn't necessarily an evil villain, he was just a Loyalist with power, but you can see where that cliché probably came out of some real-life events.

    Gage's proclamation is kind of the anti-Declaration of Independence, attempting to argue that the colonists who have been fighting against the British are the ones who have been unjust, inciting unnecessary violence against their benevolent sovereign. He says that the press has convinced people through unfair, inflammatory language that they should hate the British, leading to cruelty towards members of the British government.

    Unlike Jefferson and the Founding Fathers, Gage doesn't go into a whole lot of detail about the colonists' offences, which are, "too many to enumerate on one side, and are all too attrocious [sic] to be palliated on the other."(Source)

    There were still a number of Loyalists in the colonies, so Gage's words wouldn't have fallen completely on deaf ears. Compare his language in this official proclamation to Jefferson's in the Declaration, and you can decide which is more effective. Gage's language tends to be more tempered and distant, although also pretty accusatory towards the rebelling colonists.

    He doesn't present any revolutionary ideals like Jefferson, which is maybe one reason why he didn't find swarms of colonial subjects laying down their guns at his request. Stern requests don't get quite the same response as lofty ideological statements, generally speaking.

  • Thomas Paine, Common Sense (January 10, 1776)

    Common Sense was an instant bestseller when it was published—in fact, it was the first bestseller in America, selling 120,000 copies within three months alone. (Source)

    It's pretty universally accepted that the book (or pamphlet, as Mr. Paine calls it himself) had a tangible impact on inspiring public opinion to favor independence in the months before the official Declaration.

    The pamphlet's divided into four sections, each on a different topic related to systems of government, or the state of America in relation to Britain. Paine has some pretty good quotes in there (some shady ones as well), and given the pamphlet's popularity, the document also provides us with valuable insight into what everyday people thought about the colonies' declaration (and Declaration) of independence, not just what the small group of government leaders believed.

    Chapter 1: Of the Origin and Design of Government…

    The first section of Common Sense focuses on the origin of government, and why it exists in human civilization. Paine sums it up nicely right at the beginning: "Society is produced by our wants, and government by our wickedness." (Source)

    Paine says that humans need government to protect us from ourselves. Government is,

    …a mode rendered necessary by the inability of moral virtue to govern the world; here too is the design and end of government, viz. freedom and security. And however our eyes may be dazzled with show, or our ears deceived by sound; however prejudice may warp our wills, or interest darken our understanding, the simple voice of nature and of reason will say, it is right. (Source)

    Basically, people can be terrible, so we had to create governments to make our society function properly.

    Chapter 2: Of Monarchy and Hereditary Succession

    The second section muses on monarchy, and asks the question: how does someone get to be a monarch, and how do we know they deserve it?

    Hoo boy. That's a tricky one

    He states:

    Male and female are the distinctions of nature, good and bad the distinctions of heaven; but how a race of men came into the world so exalted above the rest, and distinguished like some new species, is worth enquiring into, and whether they are the means of happiness or of misery to mankind. (Source)

    Basically, let's think about why certain people get such power just by their birth, because something's very wrong with this picture

    There's a section of this chapter where Paine basically claims that creating monarchies is one of the sins of the ancient Jews. Paine uses the Bible as his sole source of historical events; he didn't have the knowledge of ancient civilizations that we have today, which trace the evolution of monarchies back much further and across many regions.

    There were few Jewish people in the colonies, and anti-Semitism was fairly universal, so his comments probably didn't stir up too much outrage at the time. We don't want to ignore these kinds of statements, but they can be commonplace in historical texts. As historians, we recognize how accepted this type of thinking was at that time, and compare to how things are now.

    Later in his life, Paine and his writing was largely dismissed after he published a criticism of Christian theology called The Age of Reason, so it's actually not totally clear how much his religious views accurately reflected public sentiment.

    It can be distracting to see how people used to blame marginalized groups for their problems (because it's gross and nasty and wrong) so it's helpful to focus on the main idea of the text. Here, that idea is that hereditary monarchy is the definitely the wrong way to run a government.

    Chapter 3: Thoughts on the Present State of American Affairs

    The third section of Common Sense argues that, contrary to what Loyalists have asserted, the colonies are not better off under the control of Britain, nor do they owe Britain for their prosperity.

    "We may as well assert that because a child has thrived upon milk, that it is never to have meat," Paine says, "or that the first twenty years of our lives is to become a precedent for the next twenty." (Source)

    Paine presents a number of arguments as to why the connection with Great Britain is not a benefit to the colonies, and is in many ways actually a disservice. Ooh. Burn.

    Chapter 4: Of the Present Ability of America, With Some Miscellaneous Reflections

    The final part of Paine's text presents his evidence that now is the time to break with Great Britain. Paine claims that everyone in the colonies knows it will happen sometime, they only differ on when, and by this time the colonies have the manpower and financial resources to fight for independence.

    Paine even includes a helpful table to show readers how much it costs to build a ship for the British navy, and how much it cost to build the entire British navy, to illustrate that the colonies are capable of creating a fleet for themselves. (Source)

    Common Sense in Common Thought

    Common Sense will come up whenever you study the American Revolution, because it was first published in January of 1776, and helped sway public opinion towards supporting the Declaration of Independence within a few months.

    Thomas Paine (or Tom Pain, as he was born, which sounds like a hardcore WWF name), had a pretty interesting life, including imprisonment in France during the French Revolution. Like the Declaration of Independence, Paine argues that the colonies have been regularly mistreated by the British government, and the time has come to break ties.

    Dang straight, Paine.

    Bonus: Paine's language and rhetoric is much more passionate and detailed than the Declaration, because it is an appeal to the common man, instead of an official government document. If the Declaration represents the summary of the ideals of the Founding Fathers, Common Sense represents public opinion for those supporting independence.

    Whether his words are actually "common sense" is up to the reader (that means you…among others), but they certainly got people's attention and supported the basic claims of the Declaration.

  • The Lee Resolution (June 7, 1776)

    The Declaration of Independence was commissioned and assigned to Jefferson after this resolution, introduced by Richard Henry Lee of Virginia, was brought before the Second Continental Congress. The Lee Resolution is the first officially approved statement saying that the colonies should be independent, which paved the way for the Declaration to say that the colonies were independent.

    (Basically: time to pop the champagne.)

    Although the Declaration was commissioned only a few days after the Lee Resolution was introduced, the resolution itself wasn't officially approved until July 2nd. In fact, the first vote on July 1st had only gotten approval from nine out of twelve voting delegates. Some delegates, who thought an independence vote was too drastic a move, saw that they had lost and removed themselves from the voting, which led to the unanimous vote on July 2.

    The Lee Resolution itself is very, very short, unlike so many other historical documents, where it might feel like the author had a minimum word count (we're looking at you, Mr. Locke).

    The Lee Resolution has only three sentences, each of which state a different goal: (1) the colonies should be independent of Britain, (2) the independent country should start making its own alliances with other countries, and (3) it's time to come up with a plan for "confederation," or a government for the united colonies.

    You can thank Mr. Lee and John Adams for the brevity of the document, which often gets passed over in favor of its more elegant offspring, the Declaration of Independence. However, the Lee Resolution opened the door allowing the Declaration to be embraced by the Second Continental Congress. And if you're going to open a door, that's a pretty important one.

  • The Declaration of the Rights of Man (August 26, 1789)

    The French Revolution began as a result of discontent among the French population, primarily with the extreme disparity between rich and poor and the increasingly oppressive taxes being put in place by the monarchy. Sound familiar? Hint: those colonies, y'all.

    Having had a close relationship with America for years, and being the colonies' ally during the American Revolution, the people leading the French Revolution took inspiration from the American founding documents. This inspiration is perhaps most obvious in "The Declaration of the Rights of Man," which includes ideas also presented in the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights.

    Of course, the French were also reading the same philosophers as Jefferson, Adams, & Co., but the French also looked to the real-world example set by their friends, the former British colonies. The French document was approved by their National Assembly on August 26, 1789, in the early days of the French Revolution.

    Like the Declaration of Independence, the "Declaration of the Rights of Man" begins with a proclamation that the ultimate aim of government is to protect and ensure the welfare of its people, and that the current government is failing to do so (again, sound familiar?).

    The French Declaration continues with a list of what the authors see as the "natural, unalienable, and sacred rights of man," which includes the idea that all men are equal, government comes from the people, and punishment should only be in response to someone breaking the law. (Source)

    That last one probably seems self-explanatory, but remember that aristocrats had a lot of power back then, and the lower classes didn't have any real means of fighting unfair treatment. How surprising that there was a revolution, eh?

    By this point in time, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson had both spent years in Paris as diplomats for the United States, and made lots of friends (especially Franklin, who was super popular). It's no coincidence that some of the ideas and language are almost identical to the American Declaration and the Bill of Rights—except, of course, originally in French.

    Examples of the similarities include: "Men are born and remain free and equal in rights,""These rights are liberty, property, security, and resistance to oppression," a statement on not abusing the people with the army, and no taxation without approval from the people or their representatives. There is even a stipulation that "all persons are held innocent until they shall have been declared guilty," which is a right established in the U.S. Constitution as well, with pretty much the same wording. (Source)

    The "Declaration of the Rights of Man" isn't a declaration of independence, since the French weren't trying to establish a different country, but give their existing one a makeover. This is why in many ways the text is more like the U.S. Bill of Rights, including a list of, you know, rights.

    However, the French "Declaration" also served as an official public statement, issued by a representative legislature, about the abuses of the monarchical government. It championed the idea that government should truly represent its people. This fundamental idea was revolutionary in the 18th century, but would be continuously adopted over the 19th century throughout many regions.