Declaration of Independence
contributed by Tex Rogers
|By Tex Rogers ©Copyright 1999, Southwest Scots
On June 11, 1776, delegates to the Second Continental Congress
appointed a committee of five men to draft a "Declaration of Independence,"
absolving all allegience of the American colonies to the British Crown.
The young, intellectual Thomas Jefferson, 33, of Virginia was singled
out by the committee also comprised of John Adams of Massachusetts, Benjamin Franklin of
Pennsylvania, Roger Sherman of Connecticutt and Robert R. Livingston of New York to
actually write the document which would change the course of human history forever. The
document he prepared over the next two weeks and presented to the committee for final
approval on June 28 was like none other ever written in the annals of humankind, clearly
affirming that Jefferson was indeed a man of and for his time.
That Jefferson was able to produce such a finely-crafted, compact
declaration that would inevitably shake the giant British Empire to its very roots is a
remarkable literary achievement in itself. His effort was even more phenomenal when
considering the amount of resources from which he had to draw.
People just didn't write about throwing off the shackles of a monoarchy
in those times.
But there is not doubt that Jefferson was a very well read individual,
probably one of the most informed persons in the colonies with regard to the new
phisophies spurring on the age of Enlightment.
During five years of studying law at William and Mary, Jefferson was
exposed to Milton, Shakespeare, Dryden, Buchanan, Thomson, Thomas Moss, Monesquieu and
Voltaire, as well as the classical writings of Xenophon, Epictetus, Senecca, Cicero and
He also Had read John Locke's "An Essay Concerning Human
Understanding," as well as the English philospher's treatists on government.
And the record shows that he was given a copy of Thomas Paine's
explosive pamphlet "Common Sense," so he was well aware of Paine's fiery list of
grievances against the English king.
But, in his own words, in a letter to James Madison on Aug. 1, 1822,
"With respect to our rights, and the acts of the British
government contravening those rights, there was but one opinion on this side of the water.
All American whigs thought alike on these subjects. When forced, therefore, to resort to
arms for redress, an appeal to the tribunal of the world was deemed proper for our
justification. This was the object of the Declaration of Independence. Not to find our 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, and to justify ourselves in the
independent stand we are compelled to take. Neither aiming at originality of principle or
sentiment, nor yet copied from any particular and 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. All its authority rests then on the harmonizing
sentiments of the day, whether expressed in conversation , in letters, printed essays, or
in the elementary books of public right, as Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney, &c.
(Thomas) Pickerings observations, and Mr. (John) Adams' in addition, "that it
contained no new ideas, that it is a common-place compilation, its sentiments hacknied in
Congress for two years before, and its essense contained in Otis' pamphlet" may all
be true. Of that I am not to be the judge. I know only that I turned to neither book nor
pamphlet while writing it. I did not consider it as any part of my charge to invent new
ideas altogether, and to offer no sentiment which had ever been expressed before."
However, further reading reveals that Jefferson had been subjected to
many other influences that could have easily led him to explore the notion of individual
freedom, especially with regard to the British. While at William and Mary he came under
the tuteledge of William Small, a Scottish professor of mathematics and natural philosophy
who became Jefferson's prime awakener and inspirer. Jefferson once wrote that Small was
"as a father" to him.
"Small... would not have been a true Scot if he had not had that
passionate love for discussion and logic which seems the inate gift of so many sons of the
Highland," wrote historian Gilbert Chinard in "Thomas Jefferson: The Apostle of
It was also at William and Mary that Jefferson was exposed to the
writings of the Scottish Lord Henry Home Kames (1696-1782), whose "Historical Law
Tracts" were cafefully absorbed by the young student.
Chinard, who asserts that Kames was for Jefferson a "master and a
guide," also says it is in Kames that "he found a definition of society which he
could have written himself and which expresses his political individualism and
subordination to law."
So, what were the influenciing factors in the mind of Thomas Jefferson
when he drafted the Declaration of Independence?
There were many, all of which may be traced back through his
He was noted to be of "solid Scottish and Welsh stock,"
carrying blood of the Randolphs and Keiths. He may have been an English subject at the
time, but he was also an American, reared and educated in an environment totally different
from his cousins on the Continent.
Was there evidence that he was exposed to the Scottish Declaration of
Arbroath before writing the Declaration of Independence, or that he was even aware that
such a document existed? Probably not, since there is no record of his knowledge of its
existance in any of Jefferson's extensive writings.
However, Chinard makes an interesting observation when he cites the
extensive research by historian Carl Lotus Becker, with regard to the mind of Jefferson at
the time he penned the now famous Declaration:
"Mr. Becker in his masterly study had demonstrated that it was the
final development of a whole current of thought, the origins of which can be traced back
in history even farther than he has done."
Perhaps even back 456 years to April 6, 1320.
(Tex Rogers is publisher and editor of Southwest Scots, a quarterly
magazine (January, April, July, October) covering Scottish/Celtic culture and activities
in the Southwest U.S.A.. To subscribe send check or money order of $11.95 for 4 issues in
U.S., or $19.95 for 8 issues to: Southwest Scots, P.O. Box 651, Columbus, TX 78934.)
Different times, differerant places, different politics make comparing these two dynamic
By Nick Rogers © Copyright 1999, Southwest Scots
On April 6,1320, at the Abbey of Arbroath in Scotland eight earls and
45 barons drafted a letter to Pope John XXII asking him to intervene in the bloody dispute
between Scotland and England, and to recognize an independent Scotland with Robert the
Bruce as its rightful king.
Despite his victory over Edward II at Bonnock Burn in 1314, and having
the English rooted from their last Scottish stronghold at Berwick on Tweed in 1318, Bruce
was not considered king of Scotland by Pope John XXII, presumably because of Bruce's
excommunication by Pope Clement V in 1310. John XXII considered Edward II to be Scotland's
What the lords produced in their papal appeal was the Declaration of
Arbroath, a document some often consider as a model for America's Declaration of
Independence which would come 456 years later.
Certainly not lyrically beautiful as the American Declaration of
Independence, Arbroath provides more insight into the political environment of its time.
In this document we see Scotland in relation to Europe and the papacy in an early 14th
century version of realpolitic.
While there is not much to compare Arbroath to the American
declaration, it would be useful to give a summary of the latter in order to illuminate the
differences between a philosophical political ideology versus the nuts and bolts of hard
politicking. Plus, it is interesting to see the difference between the time periods
involved. The documents do indeed well represent the movements of thought and political
environment of their respective times. After all, both the American colonies and Scotland
were fighting England.
A true document of the Enlightenment, the American declaration
originally drafted by Thomas Jefferson is a philosophically complex text wrapped in a
beautifully simple formula.
Actually a series of declarations, the opening lines act somewhat as a
thesis - a notion of the declaration and the reasons for same. The opening paragraph says
that the governed, the Americans, have the right to declare independence.
The next stage of the text acts as a declaration of rights. A
philosophical justification of a people's right to declare themselves independent. As
mentioned, it is a document of the Enlightenment. This means that the relationship between
the governing and the governed are part of the natural balance, the order and structure of
all things in the universe.
One of the contingencies of natural balance is that anything which
subverts or undermines that balance is an abomination and should be dispensed with. This
concept follows the teaching of the late 17th century English philosopher John Locke,
whose treatise on government discusses the inalienable rights (wrongly referred to in the
declaration as "unalieanable") of man. Governments are created to protect these
rights. When that government either fails or abuses its protective function, it forfeits
the right to govern. The people, then, have the right to rebel and establish a new
government. Since the rights of the governed are inalienable, they are immutable laws of
nature. To subvert such is to go against nature, thus against "nature's God."
What we see here, then, is the declaration of the right to declare independence.
Being the legal scholar that he was, Jefferson next enumerated the
grievances against the British government and crown. This was not done simply to air
complaints but, rather, but was meant to validate the declaration by showing,
point-by-point, how England violated the political contract which bound the sovereign to
the governed. Jefferson stated how the colonists tried to redress these grievances, but
were either ignored or met with more mistreatment.
Jefferson concluded the document with the declaration proper. One of
the most interesting characteristics of which is the list of rights that a free and
independent state takes as its own. One of these is the right to "contact
alliances." This was a signal to the French that the former colonies were willing to
accept help, something that France refused to do while the Americas were still under
British rule. That's interesting because the document itself pretends to be speaking to
God. We are given, then, a keen insight into the world of late 18th century international
politics, a world which thrived on the subtle, the gentlemanly, form of diplomacy.
While the Declaration of Arbroath is a clever document, it is anything
by subtle. However, it is an historically insightful document in that it offers a keen
perspective into early 14th century politics. A mixture of extortion and arm-twisting
wrapped in a facade of flattery which would do Lyndon B. Johnson proud.
The Scots actually made a more compelling case for independence than
The document claimed that Scotland was an ages-old sovereignty, where
there had "reigned one hundred-and-thirteen kings." While the history of
"Scottish" kings in the introduction may be considered laughable fiction, the
document was a very sincere, passionate assertion that the Scots were a people with their
own history of self-government. This was meant to portray the English as unwanted invaders
who violated the rights of a free people by placing them under the control of a hostile
The claim of right of independence is further persuaded by the
assertion that Scotland's independence is sanctioned by Jesus himself:
"The high qualities and deserts of these people, were they not
otherwise manifest, gain glory enough from this: that the King of kings and Lord of lords,
our Lord Jesus Christ, after His Passion and Resurrection, called them, even though
settled in the uttermost parts of the earth, almost the first to His holy faith. Nor would
He have them confirmed in that faith by merely anyone but by the first of His Apostles -
by calling, though second or third rank - the most gentle Saint Andrew, the Blessed
Peter's brother, and desired him to keep them under his protection as their patron
forever," -a point that would certainly not be lost on a pope, the "Vassal of
Christ," whose church was founded by Andrew's brother Peter.
The grievances listed by Arbroath are very short, but compelling. At
first the document points out to Pope John XXII that other popes had willingly recognized
Scottish independence. That was, of course, until Edward I invaded and violated Scotland's
free sovereignty and, in the process, committed barbarous acts of brutality against its
freedom loving people. Scotland's independence, then, was a rewon independence gained
through the actions of Robert the Bruce. Arbroath maintains that Scotland was only taking
what was already its own.
An interesting twist of pre-Lockean vision in the text is that the
Scottish lords give fealty to Bruce only as long as he fulfills his obligations to a free
Scotland. In what is probably the most lyrically and philosophically beautiful passage of
the document, Arbroath reads:
"Yet if he should give up what he has begun, and agree to make us
or our kingdom subject to the King of England or the English, we should exert ourselves at
once to drive him out as our enemy and a subverter of his own rights and ours, and make
some other man who was well able to defend us our King; for, as long as but a hundred of
us remain alive, never will we on any conditions be brought under English rule. It is in
truth not for glory, nor riches, nor honours that we are fighting, but for freedom - for
that alone, which no honest man gives up but with life itself."
That meant that if Robert the Bruce violated Scotland's freedom, then
Scotland would rise up against him just as it did against the English - a bold statement
that kings are bound to restrictions, and that men come before the man and that rights
come before kings. A similar claim was made in the Magna Charta, so it's easy to wonder if
such a statement was intended to shame England with its own history.
What follows from that point is the most interesting part of the
document. The lord produce a grand example of medieval European politics - a mixture of
flattery and what can only properly be called historical extortion:
"Therefore it is, Reverend Father and Lord, that we beseech your
Holiness with our most earnest prayers and suppliant hearts, inasmuch as you will in your
sincerity and goodness consider all this, that, since with Him Whose vice-gerent on earth
you are there is neither weighing nor distinction of Jew and Greek, Scotsman or
Englishman, you will look with the eyes of a father on the troubles and privation brought
by the English upon us and the Church of God"
The intention was to push the Pope into the position in which he was
recognized as the only authority in the matter at hand. The spin to this was that if the
pope refused to make a decision, then he was not properly fulfilling his office. That was
especially the case since the English were blamed for damaging the church as well as
"The King of the English, who ought to be satisfied with what
belongs to him since England used once to be enough for seven kings or more, to leave us
Scots in peace, who live in this poor little Scotland, beyond which there is no
dwelling-place at all, and covet nothing but our own."
Here England and its kings (especially Edward I) were labeled as greedy
bullies. This was of no small importance since greed is a mortal sin, one which a Pope of
"sincerity and goodness" should not overlook. That the English were greedy was
reaffirmed in comparison to the Scots who claimed they wanted "nothing but our
"This truly concerns you, Holy Father, since you see the savagery
of the heathen raging against the Christians ... and the frontiers of Christendom being
pressed inward every day..."
By stating that the subject of Scottish independence "truly
concerns" the Pope, Arbroath was referring to any contemporary pope's pet project -
the Crusades. This was the Scots political card, one very much locked in time and place.
It was also a point which would perk the interest of the Pope more so than claims of
mistreatment at the hands of a foreign nation (as were the Crusades). That was the
Arbroath version of dangling a carrot in front of the horse. The Scots were obviously not
hedging their bets, apparently afraid that the Pope would unlikely make any decision base
upon his own judiciousness.
"... and how much it will tarnish your Holiness's memory if (which
God forbid) the Church suffers eclipse or scandal in any branch of it during your time,
you must percieve."
A fine example of historical extortion. Also, a beautiful example of
building to a point. No Pope would wish to be the one that brought the end of the Mother
Church. That would not only tarnish his name for posterity, but likely damn him as well.
The Scots were making absolutely sure that the document's intended audience was listening.
"Then rouse the Christian princes who for false reasons pretend
that they cannot go to help of the Holy Land because of wars they have on hand with their
neighbours. The real reason that prevents them is that in making war on their smaller
neighbours they find quicker profit and weaker resistence."
Referring back to "poor little Scotland," the "Christian
princes" obviously include the Edwards. Arbroath made no subtle gestures when
labeling the English Kings as cowards. However, it was not simply cowardice under fire,
but a type of cowardice which placed "quicker profit" over God.
"But how cheerfully our Lord the King and we too would go there if
the King of the English would leave us in peace, He from Whom nothing is hidden well
knows; and we profess and declare it to you as Vicar of Christ and to all
Arbroath declared here that the Scots would gladly help the Pope in his
crusades if he would get the English off their backs. That was more than simply a promise,
but a tribute such as a vassal would give to his lord. In this way, Scotland reaffirmed
its fealty to the papacy unlike, according to the Scots, the English.
"But if your Holiness puts too much faith in the tales the English
tell and will not give sincere belief to all this, nor refrain from favouring them to our
prejudice, then the slaughter of bodies, the perdition of souls, and all the other
misfortunes that will follow, inflicted by them on us and by us on them, will, we believe,
be surely laid by the Most High to your charge."
While at first glance it may not seem so, but this is probably the
boldest statement of the Declaration of Arbroath. The Scots are telling the Pope that if
he refuses to act on the matter at hand, then God himself would hold the Pope responsible
for all the inevitable bloodshed. Arbroath maintained that fealty is earned. A vassal does
not give to a lord who does no honor to his fief.
Even though Arbroath is a document replete in the medieval notions of
politics, and the Declaration of Independence is a document steeped in Enlightened
political philosophy, there is some ground for similarity. The most important point that
both parties, though 456 years apart (it's wonderful to note that the time between the two
documents is longer than that between us and our Independence) believed themselves to be
autonomous people - people who deserved, for whatever reason, the right to
Ghandi once said that a people would rather choose their own bad
government than a good foreign one. He was fighting the English for independence as well.
(Nick Rogers, who holds masters degrees in history and English
literature, is a news editor for the Victoria Advocate, a daily newspaper in Victoria,
Southwest Scots is a quarterly magazine (January, April, July, October)
covering Scottish/Celtic culture and activities in the Southwest U.S.A.. To subscribe or
money order of $11.95 for 4 issues in U.S., or $19.95 for 8 issues to: Southwest Scots,
P.O. Box 651, Columbus, TX 78934.