Tomorrow is the fourth of July, and it is in the tradition of America to offer some words about the Declaration of Independence by way of commemoration. Formerly, that obligation was often met by public readings of the Declaration followed by formal pronouncements of what were called Fourth Of July Orations. Some of these speeches were rambling musings by local dignitaries, while others were memorable speeches by commanding intellectuals or statesmen. If the past practice was the oration, the current one should be the blog post. I accordingly urge all bloggers on public affairs to put First Things first and join in adding to this renewal of an old and worthy tradition in a new form.
The addition to be offered here centers—how could it be otherwise, given my University affiliation?—on the relation of Thomas Jefferson to July 4th. It is neither meant to be hagiographic nor critical, but to strike a just mean: a fair and balanced statement, one that raises a new question about Jefferson’s relation to the great state document.
Jefferson made some scrupulous plans about his own death. It is tempting to think—though this fact cannot be corroborated—that his attention to detail was so careful that it included the very timing of his death. It is an uncanny fact that Thomas Jefferson departed from this world on July 4, 1826, an occurrence made even more astounding by the fact that he was joined in this exit by John Adams. These two men were the two largest intellectual figures in America, in the realm of political thought, of the era—Jefferson in part because of his role in preparing the Declaration of Independence and Adams in part because of his role in drafting much of the Massachusetts Constitution, which is really the ur-document of model of the federal Constitution. Neither of these two men, as it turned out, was present at the Federal Constitution in Philadelphia, another strange fact that allowed James Madison to step to the forefront.
Jefferson was certainly deliberate about his death plans in the matter of his burial. He covered the big items most notably he inscription that would go on his gravestone: “Here was buried Thomas Jefferson Author of the Declaration of American Independence of the Statute of Virginia for religious freedom Father of the University of Virginia.” Many have taken this list of civic accomplishments to be overly modest, as he omitted the small detail of having been twice elected President of the United States. But others have wondered at his boldness in claiming authorship of the Declaration of Independence. Congress assigned the drafting of the Declaration to a five-person committee, comprised of Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman and Robert Livingstone. Jefferson was given the task of preparing the initial draft. The committee (chiefly by Adams and Franklin) made some modifications, to which Congress added further changes. (Peter Lawler has a fine essay on the Declaration that discusses some of the additions and alterations, a few of which are quite significant.) So the question some ask—John Adams no doubt felt this way: does it not go beyond the bounds of a suitable modesty to proclaim oneself the “author of the Declaration of Independence”?
One thing is certain. Jefferson’s claim certainly stuck. More than anything else, it is the basis of his subsequent renown. It is true that having appropriated the title, he went out of his way to display modesty by disclaiming originality. In a well known letter to Henry Lee in 1825, Jefferson noted this: “Neither aiming at originality of principle or sentiment, not yet copied from any particular and previous writing, it [the Declaration] was intended to be an expression of the American mind, and to give to that expression the proper tone and spirit called for by the occasion.”
The Fourth today commonly celebrates the Founding, understood as the Declaration of Independence (and the Revolutionary War) and the Constitution. Most Americans today, perhaps from sheer laziness, treat the Founding—and thus the Declaration and Constitution—as whole. In this Americans follow Abraham Lincoln, who likened the Declaration to “an apple of gold” and the Constitution to the “frame of silver” around it. The view that the Founding is a whole was denied by the Abolitionists, by the Confederates, and by many Progressives, each of whom, for different reasons, saw the two documents as being at odds with each other.
And Jefferson? The question is not easy to answer. But one strand of Jefferson’s thought was surely devoted to lowering the status of the Constitution. As late as 1816, in a letter to Samuel Kercheval, Jefferson proposed a plan for the Constitution to be re-written every generation, calculated at every nineteen years. In one passage he wrote:
some men look at constitutions with sanctimonious reverence, and deem them like the arc of the covenant, too sacred to be touched. They ascribe to the men of the preceding age a wisdom more than human, and suppose what they did to be beyond amendment. I knew that age well; I belonged to it, and labored with it. It deserved well of its country. It was very like the present, but without the experience of the present; and forty years of experience in government is worth a century of book-reading; and this they would say themselves, were they to rise from the dead.
Follow the logic of this argument through and it quickly becomes apparent that the status of the Founders, referring for the moment to those who drafted the Constitution, is greatly diminished. If the Constitution does not remain, but is constantly re-written, what is the Founders’ claim to greatness? Do they remain “Founders” in any significant sense?
Under the Jeffersonian view, the Constitution fades into insignificance, and with it, its two main public defenders, Jefferson’s friend James Madison and his antagonist Alexander Hamilton. The Constitution is an evanescent achievement. And if this is the case, then the “model” on which it was based, the Massachusetts Constitution, is of no lasting value. So much for the exalted status of John Adams.
One document, however, does not lose its luster with the passing of time. Nor can it ever be improved by amendment; its truth is eternal. By the testimony of one man, then, there would appear to be only one Founder left standing: the author of the Declaration of Independence. Praise to Jefferson, then, though perhaps less than he, in his subtle audacity, demanded.