On July 4, the Founders didn't create America; America created the Founders
Both statements are well-intended. But were the leaders, like Jefferson, going out in front of the people and prescribing an edict of what the country would be? Or were they in an official document, echoing the sentiments of a people who insisted on independence to preserve their liberty?
In her excellent book on the forming of the Declaration, “American Scripture,” historian Pauline Maier writes of more than 90 declarations of independence passed by colonial assemblies, towns, and even private organizations in the months and days before July 4, 1776. Of Jefferson’s prose in the Declaration, she writes “The sentiments Jefferson eloquently expressed were, in short, absolutely conventional among Americans of his time.” [Editor's note: The original article wrongly implied that local declarations were being made years before 1776.]
The ideas and beliefs expressed in the Declaration cannot solely be attributed to the buzz of independence among American colonists, either. They are ideas that had been debated for years in the colonies that came from some of the great English advocates of freedom like John Locke and Cato’s letters. As Ms. Maier recently told some of my colleagues at Sam Adams Alliance, “Jefferson just took those and summarized them in a very effective rhetorical mode.”
It is true that Jefferson, with assistance from John Adams and Franklin, captured these ideas with historic clarity. But he was writing for America, not to America. In 1825 he said of the Declaration, “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.”