Jefferson - Enlightenment: Political Freedom Political Freedom

"We hold these truths to be self-evident..." The Declaration of Independence Thomas Jefferson considered the Declaration of Independence his greatest achievement. It marked the beginning of self-government in America, kindling a flame that he believed would eventually light the world. But the Declaration was a personal achievement for Jefferson as well, a masterpiece of eloquence that still inspires us today.

Near the end of his life, Jefferson explained his goal in writing the Declaration of Independence:

Not to find out new principles, or new arguments, never before thought of, not merely to say things which had never been said before; but to place before mankind the common sense of the subject, in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent... Neither aiming at originality of principle or sentiment, nor yet copied from any particular or previous writing, it 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.

It is the "tone and spirit" of Jefferson's writing that make the Declaration of Independence something more than a statement of political principles. To see this, compare Jefferson's words to those of another Virginian, George Mason, whose "Declaration of Rights" was adopted by the Virginia assembly on June 12, 1776, while Jefferson was still working on his first draft.

George Mason Declaration of Rights
All men are by nature equally free and independent, and have certain inherent rights, of which, when they enter into a state of society, they cannot, by any compact, deprive or divest their posterity; namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.

Thomas Jefferson Declaration of Independence 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...

The ideas in the two passages are almost identical, and may even be more clearly explained by George Mason. But in Jefferson's hands these ideas become charged with the "tone and spirit" of conviction. Instead of setting down political facts, he affirms eternal truths about humanity. Instead of spelling things out, he makes us feel that more remains to be said.

Jefferson's draft of the Declaration shows that he worked hard to give this passage its distinctive style. Mark the changes he made on the transcript shown below, then compare Jefferson's draft with the passage by George Mason and with his own final choice of words.

Thomas Jefferson Draft of the Declaration of Independence We hold these truths to be sacred & undeniable; that all men are created equal & independent; that from that equal creation they derive rights inherent & inalienable; that among these are the preservation of life, & liberty, & the pursuit of happiness;

  • What differences do you notice among these nearly parallel expressions of our most basic political beliefs? What do these differences reveal about Jefferson's mind and character?

  • In Thomas Jefferson, the historian Daniel Boorstin says that Jefferson was the apostle of a society that constantly responds to changes in the world, a society open to new possibilities. Looking at the Declaration of Independence from this point of view, to what extent does Jefferson tell us not what we are as Americans but what we can be?

This study sheet provided on PBS ONLINE courtesy of General Motors
for Thomas Jefferson, "A General Motors Mark of Excellence Presentation."
Photograph courtesy of Library of Congress/Corbis.