History becomes malleable through cultural mythology. By distorting the original words of the dead, those living weave tall tales about the intentions that motivated such historical figures to action in the first place. The major flaw of historical revisionism (even those that are unintentional) is the risk of losing the essential meaning behind specific events down the proverbial Orwellian memory hole.
Thomas Jefferson was neither unique nor the only individual who conjured a declaration about independence from out of thin air, for there were approximately 90 other local and state-level declarations of independence preceding the one that was eventually approved by the Second Continental Congress on July 4th of 1776. The scope of these would range from Virginia to Maryland, from South Carolina to Massachusetts and others, and they were issued by towns, counties, and even grand juries. In much less prosaic and more business-like language, the colonists expressed in no uncertain terms, to their delegates in the Congress as well as to others, about why their desire for reconciliation with England had been extinguished, and that their only hope for survival was to seize independence.
Committees of Safety (CoS) were involved in both conducting the war effort as well as working with the Second Continental Congress in adopting the Declaration of Independence. The Massachusetts CoS was plenty busy dealing with the aftermath of the Battles of Lexington & Concord as well as sending Col. Benedict Arnold to participate in the Capture of Fort Ticonderoga. Congress requested the Pennsylvania CoS to reinforce Monmouth, NJ with various militia companies. Maryland’s congressional delegates wrote the Maryland CoS that they had delayed approving the Declaration so as to allow sufficient time for their constituency to be consulted on it.
It should be kept in mind that Jefferson made the Declaration a work of incendiary prose, not so much one that was calmly factual. This was done for a multitude of reasons, but some of them involved eliciting foreign assistance, especially from France. Although Jefferson’s prose is philosophically nice and flowery, it is not as if he were some well-intentioned libertarian type attempting to take down the State by slipping in the most freedom sounding rhetoric underneath the noses of the Second Continental Congress, as was suggested in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. You should keep in mind Jefferson’s own quasi-aristocratic background as a Virginia plantation owner as well as his future actions as the 3rd American President, particularly in regard to the Louisiana Purchase and the First Barbary War, both of which could easily be construed as expansions of government power.
Admittedly, the phrasing of Jefferson’s Declaration would make any lover of liberty feel emotionally free, but tyrants since the American Revolutionary War for Independence have capitalized on that in order to push for their own self-serving agendas. One of these despots was Abraham Lincoln, who abused the Declaration’s phrase in the second paragraph about “all men are created equal,” for the purpose of attributing some vague yet allegedly significant meaning to the notion of “equality.” As if the artificially imposed social engineering was not bad enough, this perverted interpretative expansion beyond the Declaration’s actual purpose (that of justifying independence) led to a gross misconception about the role of the central government that still plagues the American body politic to this day, that is, that the supposedly all beneficent District of Criminals can not only do no wrong, but are at the top of the pyramid of power; the truth is, an inverted pyramid with the mass of the folk at the top is much more accurate.
Pauline Maier’s American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence is a insightful examination into the good, the bad, and the just plain ugly regarding the drafting, editing, and approval of the Declaration of Independence for these United States. As the New Hampshire’s 1784 Constitution says in its Bill of Rights:
“All men have certain natural, essential, and inherent rights; among which are – the enjoying and defending life and liberty – acquiring, possessing, and protecting property – and in a word, of seeking and obtaining happiness.”
I don’t think it is too far off the mark to say that New Hampshire both recognized the Lockean triad of Life, Liberty, and Property as well as Jefferson’s “pursuit of happiness;” most importantly, I would also infer from New Hampshire’s Bill of Rights that their formula for individual freedom would be:
Life + Liberty + Property = Pursuit of Happiness
If only Jefferson was as well-rounded as these commoners, perhaps he would have understood and articulated the message of liberty better than he actually did. The Declaration of Independence is a memorial, that is, a device that preserves the memory of something; in this case, it was to preserve the justification for independence from England and nothing else! Anyone who attempts to infuse additional meaning beyond even what Jefferson might have intended has no respect for the truth, only a desire to manipulate you into supporting whatever their agenda happens to be this week.