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What foundational documents inspired the founders as they wrote the Declaration of Independence and the United States Bill of Rights?
Richard Lobb, Lifelong student of history
Answered December 27, 2018
The Declaration of Independence was drafted by Thomas Jefferson as an “expression of the American mind.” He drew upon the Virginia Declaration of Rights that had just been adopted by his home province (later state, of course) of Virginia, a ringing statement drafted by George Mason which also influenced the Bill of Rights years later. Jefferson himself wrote later that he also drew on Aristotle, Cicero, the English philosopher John Locke, and the now-forgotten philosopher-politician Algernon Sidney, who believed there was a right to revolution.
Some of the most ringing phrases in the Declaration can be traced to Locke, such as Jefferson’s statement that “we hold these truths to be self-evident.” Locke also used that concept in his writings, although he had a much more restricted view of the matter.
Locke also held that the rights to “life, liberty and property” were fundamental to human nature. Jefferson gave that a poetic twist and wrote of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
Jefferson also included a long list of complaints against the British Crown. These were well known to all those attending the Continental Congress, and some of them had already been specified in official protests to the British government, which basically ignored them.
Unlike the works of Locke and Sidney, however, the Declaration was not an essay or a discourse. It was a proclamation intended to stir support for the revolutionary cause of independence both in America and abroad, and in this sense it succeeded admirably. The Declaration was published across Europe within months of being adopted in Philadelphia.
The Bill of Rights was based largely on the English Bill of Rights proclaimed over a hundred years before, with additions and modifications unknown in England. The Virginia politician James Madison led the charge to get them through Congress. As the first ten amendments to the Constitution, they had the force of law, which the Declaration never had. Nearly all states adopted similar statements in their constitutions, and most, but not all, of the rights included in the federal constitution were eventually extended to the states via the doctrine of incorporation.