“The Declaration of Independence” from The Autobiography of Thomas Jefferson Enlightenment Essay Sir Isaac Newton unveiled the gravitational theory in 1687. Although this idea may sound basic to us today, at the time it was revolutionary. It contradicted religious beliefs and created a cultural movement. The theory created an alternate way of viewing the world, through a lens of rationality and experiment. This single theory allowed others to break through the confines of the Puritan and religious laws that had governed their lives. This movement led to the creation of the Enlightenment era, a time where radical new ideas forever changed the course of human civilization. A result of this new range of thinking was the Declaration of Independence, which represented the creation of country built on Enlightenment ideals. In “The Declaration of Independence”, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Dr. Franklin, Roger Sherman, and Robert R. Livingston expressed Enlightenment principles, through their beliefs in natural law, foundational human rights, and the uncovering of truth through facts and rationality. The authors expressed their Enlightenment ideals through their belief in natural law and a divine creator.
They believed all humans should follow natural law, an ideal contradictory to the Puritan era, where religious law dominated society. The authors believed “the laws of nature and of nature’s God” (Jefferson et al. 342) carried enough weight, and that a violation of the law “impels them to the separation” (342). The English “waged cruel war against human nature”(344), thus obstructed their subjects ability to reason by “violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty” (344), the key attributes in dissecting natural law. The linchpin for all Enlightenment ideals was the authors’ belief in a divine creator, who built the massive machine we live in. Humans represent just another piece of his elaborate creation, “endowed by the Creator with inherent and inalienable rights” (342). The authors maintained “a firm reliance on the protection of a divine providence”, which explained their belief in a rational God whose entire creation could be logically articulated. This belief in a natural law and an ultimate Creator, illustrates the authors’ Enlightenment ideologies, which influenced their views on human rights.
Enlightenment philosophies were portrayed through the authors’ belief that all men were entitled to the right to liberty and representation in government. The authors considered themselves “a people fostered and fixed in principles of freedom” (345) and that the English were “violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty” (344). The authors believed that “these united colonies are, and of right ought to be free and independent states” (346), which represented the Enlightenment ideal that humans ought to be given the basic rights of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” (342). This ideal directly opposed the Puritan philosophy that humans exist as inherently evil and incapable beings that should thus be restrained from freedom. The authors also believed that all men have the right to representation in their government. When the Prince of England “refused to pass other laws … unless those people relinquished the right of representation in the legislature” (343) it angered the authors as they saw representation as “a right inestimable to them” (343). The “dissolved representative houses” (343) in the authors’ natural law based beliefs represented “invasions on the rights of the people” (343).
They felt citizens maintained “inalienable rights”, a contradiction to the Puritans who felt that humans deserved nothing, not even life. The authors’ belief in human rights reflects the Enlightenment philosophy, as does their belief in rationality. The authors expressed their Enlightenment beliefs as they utilized facts and rationality as the ultimate vehicles for truth. They believed that facts represented the foundation for which all truths can be explained. They specifically stated that “to prove” (343), their justification for independence “let facts be submitted to a candid world for the truth” (343). They directly correlated that facts represented truth. Utilizing this logic they said there “appears no solitary fact to contradict the uniform tenor of … the establishment of an absolute tyranny”(342), thus proving that England ruled as a tyranny due to the lack of facts proving otherwise.
The authors also used rationality as a means to find the truth underlining their problems. For example, one problem the authors faced was the population’s sympathy that “ties our common kindred to disavow these usurpations”. They used the rationality that “we hold the rest of mankind, enemies in war, in peace friends” (345), thus if they were sending “foreign Mercenaries to invade and destroy us” (345) then rationality declared, “these facts have given the last stab to agonizing affection” (345). The authors rejected the Romanticism philosophy of employing feelings as a means of decision-making, and instead employed the Enlightenment philosophy, utilizing rationality and logic as a means of conveying the truth.
In “The Declaration of Independence”, Thomas Jefferson et al. express their Enlightenment philosophies through their views on a natural law, created by a divine Creator, a principle that all men should be given immutable rights, and their concentration on validating points through facts and rationality. The “Declaration of Independence” was a strong representation of the Enlightenment philosophies surpassing old Puritan beliefs. The beliefs written in the “Declaration of Independence” originated over 100 years earlier during a time of religious dominated philosophies. It was at this time that Sir Isaac Newton shook the world’s cultural beliefs with the Gravitational Theory.
Jefferson, Thomas et al. “The Declaration of Independence.” The Norton Anthology American Literature. Ed. Nina Baym. United States of America: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2007. 342-346.