Jefferson was the principal author of the Declaration of Independence, which was, and still is, one of the most radical political documents ever written.
A frequently expressed opinion in recent times is that, as Americans, we should be grateful to our government for giving us freedom of speech; and therefore we should not criticize our government, particularly in a time of war. No, Jefferson would have said – the government does not give you that right; it is yours inherently. Furthermore, it is only for the purpose of preserving that right and others that the government exists at all. And when the government fails to preserve those rights, it loses its legitimacy and has no more claim to authority over the people; the people then have the right, and in fact the duty, to “throw off such government, and to provide new guards for their future security.”
The Radicalness of the Declaration of Independence
We usually think of the Declaration in its historical context; and we tend to view it from the perspective of over two centuries of what must appear to be the inevitable existence of our government. But Jefferson began the Declaration with an appeal to universal principles – when he wrote of the nature of governments, he meant all governments, including the one that declared its independent existence on the fourth day of July in 1776.
It is “self-evident,” Jefferson wrote in the Declaration, “that all men are created equal,” that we all possess “certain inalienable rights,” and that “among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
Those words are often quoted. But it is the words that follow that make the Declaration truly radical. Yet another of Jefferson’s “self-evident” truths is that “to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed; [and] that, whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it.”
The Sovereignty of the People
Jefferson’s devotion to “the consent of the governed” and “the right of the people” was absolute. Two years before the Declaration, at a time when most Americans still felt favorably disposed toward George III, and when very few questioned the hereditary nature of royal authority, Jefferson asserted that the king was “no more than the chief officer of the people, appointed by the laws, and circumscribed with definite powers, to assist in working the great machine of government, erected for their use, and consequently subject to their superintendance.” And in his first inaugural address as president, he declared, “All, too, will bear in mind this sacred principle, that though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will to be rightful must be reasonable; that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal law must protect, and to violate would be oppression.”
Jefferson was an idealist, and also an optimist – as most idealists are. He recognized the realities of political life, but even in the face of the most dismal realities, he maintained his faith in the inherent rights of the individual. He wrote, in 1774, “instead of subjecting the military to the civil powers, his majesty has expressly made the civil subordinate to the military. But can his majesty thus put down all law under his feet? Can he erect a power superior to that which erected himself? He has done it indeed by force; but let him remember that force cannot give right.” And he went on to affirm: “The God who gave us life gave us liberty at the same time; the hand of force may destroy, but cannot disjoin them.”