Updated: Jul 23, 2021
(Fortress Press, 2021, all rights reserved)
The way Thomas Jefferson rendered it in the Declaration of Independence, the Americans’ predicament was quite simple: a single tyrannical figure, England’s King George III, was obstructing their pursuit of happiness.
But why did he chose this way of framing the revolutionary cause?
In his 1774 Summary View of the Rights of British North America, Jefferson had opined that “bodies of men, as well as individuals, are susceptible of the spirit of tyranny,” but he had linked this threat to the British Parliament and to the injustice that “160,000 electors in the island of Great Britain should give law to four millions in the states of America”— “parliamentary tyranny,” he called it. But in the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson escalated and dramatized the confrontation, concentrating the threat of tyranny in a single person: “The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States.” Jefferson followed with a lengthy list of these “injuries and usurpations,” written in the eighteenth-century equivalent of bullet point form. This listing was bookended by another even more direct accusation leveled at King George III: “A Prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.”
The way Thomas Jefferson rendered it in the Declaration of Independence, the Revolution was a fight against a single tyrannical figure, England’s King George III.
Not all members of the drafting committee were comfortable with this strident approach. John Adams wrote later, “There were other expressions which I would not have inserted if I had drawn it up, particularly that which called the king tyrant. I thought this too personal; for I never believed George to be a tyrant in disposition and in nature. I always believed him to be deceived by his courtiers on both sides of the Atlantic, and in his official capacity only, cruel. I thought the expression too passionate, and too much like scolding, for so grave a solemn document.” But in casting the American predicament in this light, Jefferson tapped a stream of oppositional Protestantism that reached back centuries requiring that resistance to a monarch (or “prince”) be predicated on his possessing the character of a tyrant. The discourse was the same one that Benjamin Franklin would conjure the next month in his draft proposal for a “Great Seal” of the new nation labeled “Rebellion to Tyrants Is Obedience to God.” Thomas Jefferson liked the motto so much that he chose it later for his own personal seal.
Most proximately, Jefferson’s portrayal of King George as a tyrant connected the American Revolution directly to an idealized, and distinctly Protestant, rendering of English history. In this rendering, the English Civil Wars of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries amounted to an extended battle for natural liberty, the liberty of the individual. And this battle culminated finally in the Glorious Revolution, which inaugurated the reign of the Protestants William and Mary in 1688 and enshrined the English Bill of Rights the following year. The Bill of Rights had opened with an accusation leveled at King James II: “By the assistance of divers evil counsellors, judges and ministers employed by him,” it asserted, James “did endeavour to subvert and extirpate the Protestant religion and the laws and liberties of this kingdom.” This depiction of the Catholic monarch as a tyrant was followed by a litany of complaints. The Bill of Rights then resolved that the Protestants “William and Mary, prince and princess of Orange, be and be declared king and queen of England, France and Ireland and the dominions thereunto belonging.” Jefferson replicated the essential structure of the English Bill of Rights in the body of the Declaration of Independence, making clear the colonists’ intent. Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence shared some thing else in common with the English Bill of Rights—both documents concluded with what amounted to sacred oaths. The Bill of Rights concluded with two oaths, crafted to be taken by magistrates and other officials “of whom the oaths have allegiance.” The first oath required the individual to state his name and then “sincerely promise and swear that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to their Majesties King William and Queen Mary. So help me God.” The second required the individual again to state his name, to renounce the authority of the pope, and then to declare that “no foreign prince, person, prelate, state or potentate hath or ought to have any jurisdiction, power, superiority, pre-eminence or authority, ecclesiastical or spiritual, within this realm. So help me God.” Likewise, Jefferson concluded his Declaration of Independence with an oath that was clearly intended to be read aloud. Specifically, he envisioned that the document would be read in public and ceremonial fashion, a vision that was fulfilled routinely in assemblies throughout the colonies and in proclamations to gatherings of Continental Army troops under the command of George 169 Washington.49 Whether they read the declaration or heard it read aloud, those who composed its intended audience were invited to embrace it in the most personal of terms, joining (or imagining their voices joining) with the voices of countless others: “And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.” This closing oath was more than mere rhetorical flourish—it was an invitation to martyrdom.