What are the key arguments that Thomas Jefferson makes for the colonies separation from Great Britain?
In drafting the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson (along with Benjamin Franklin, John Adams and other members of a committee assigned to prepare this seminal document) knew that he had to present a solid legal and moral foundation upon which to build support for secession from the British Crown. Independence from Great Britain was not universally supported, and Jefferson recognized the importance of presenting the case for independence in a cogent, persuasive manner. While many Americans are familiar with the opening passages of the final draft of the Declaration of Independence, many are less familiar with the lengthy list of grievances to which Jefferson refers in arguing for the revolutionary movement taking shape among the colonies.
Jefferson prefaces his list of grievances against the British Crown by addressing the issue of independence in universal terms. It is this eloquent preface in which one finds the immortal words that most Americans remember:
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.—That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,
Having set forth these universal rights, Jefferson next address the issue of what should follow any government’s failure to protect such rights while emphasizing that the rationale for secession had to be grounded in serious grievances and not merely in slights or insults:
That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government. . . Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.
It is now that Jefferson presents his long list of grievances that cumulatively provide the basis for the declaration of independence he and others are advancing. Among those grievances is the Crown’s failure to abide by the rule of law, its failure to support the existence of a legislative or parliamentary body to which its subjects in the distant colonies can appeal, its insistence on imposing a repressive military presence upon these citizens of its colonies, its imposition of taxes without the consent of the governed, and its practice of "plundering our seas, ravaging our Coasts, burning our towns, and destroying the lives of our people." [Note: this last phrase is not a direct quote but a modification of a provision for grammatical purposes.] Finally, Jefferson argues that the Crown has “incited domestic insurrections amongst us.” This is not a comprehensive list of the grievances to which Jefferson refers. It does, however, capture the essence of his and his compatriots' arguments for a revolutionary movement to liberate the colonies from the tyranny of the British Crown.
For Jefferson, the basic elements of the argument for separation lie in a lack of respect. Jefferson frames the argument that the violation of economic and political rights that the Colonists have had to suffer were the result of a lack of respect. Jefferson is emphatic in how the British government has refused to "assent" to the basic principles of dignity and decency that could enable a successful relationship and partnership to develop. For Jefferson, the critical argument that makes rebellion and dissolution absolute is that this lack of respect will not depart. As long as this imbalance exists, the Colonists will be treated in a secondary manner, denying them their full voice and activation of their rights. It is in this light where I think Jefferson's key arguments lie. In the second section regarding the "Grievances" that the Colonists have borne, Jefferson outlines all that has been done. In doing so, he solidifies his initial argument that separation from Great Britain is the only path that the Colonists can pursue. The relationship between both nations has been so degraded by a lack of respect that there is no other option.
For more background on the crafting of the Declaration of Independence, check out this video:
If you take a look at the Declaration of Independence, the middle section is a list of grievances that Jefferson writes Great Britain has committed. Jefferson leads into this by talking about what rights people have (such as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness), and that the purpose of Government is to protect these rights. Jefferson states that the King of Great Britain has continuously failed to do so, and therefore, it is the job of the citizens to replace the ruler.
A few of the offenses Jefferson charges the monarchy with are:
"He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good."
"He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his Assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them."
"He has refused to pass other Laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of Representation in the Legislature, a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only."
"He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures."
Those lines, and more, all are related to the main idea that the British Crown is not doing what is best for the people of the colonies and is failing to give them a voice. Thus, the colonists must act.