Isaac Newton, inventor of calculus, discoverer of gravity, godfather of modern optics, and the first to describe the laws of planetary motion, wrote, "If I have seen further (than others) it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants."
Even that pithy quote, which many think Newton originated, can actually be traced back to similar sayings that are thousands of years old.1
Everything comes from somewhere.
Whether it's the Wright Brothers' invention of powered flight, Nikolai Tesla's invention of alternating current, or Alan Turing's invention of the computer—all these unprecedented breakthroughs were made possible by the earlier work of others.
The same goes for our Declaration of Independence. This remarkable document, which launched the 13 colonies toward becoming the United States of America, has been an inspiration to many different freedom movements the world over. It may also have the distinction of being the most inspiring document ever to have been created by a committee.
It was the creation of five men, including Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson, who in June of 1776 had been tasked with penning a formal declaration from the Continental Congress to King George III. No minutes of their meetings were kept. But it is generally accepted that Jefferson did the bulk of the composing.2
In the 18th century, serious writing always took into account the ideas of previous authorities. And many people have speculated about which existing documents Jefferson used as his model for the Declaration. The ideas he expressed can be traced to Enlightenment thinkers like David Hume, John Locke, and Thomas Payne.
But he may have been following a specific example.
Professor Stephen Lucas, who spent 15 years studying the origins of the Declaration, has found evidence that Jefferson used a 17th century Dutch document as a model. Called the Dutch Plakkaat van Verlatinge, it was issued in 1581 to justify the Netherlands' revolt against Spanish rule.3
Both documents begin with a preamble that justifies the rights of citizens to revolt against tyrannical authority. They both catalog a list of grievances. And both describe repeated attempts to obtain redress of their complaints.
Knowing that our Declaration of Independence was modeled after existing sources doesn't make it any less special. Quite the opposite, in fact.
If, as the evidence suggests, it drew directly from earlier documents of people seeking to be free of tyranny, then it only helps prove the assertion in the preamble: "We hold these truths to be self evident."
Just as expected, they were obvious to other people as well.
We wish you and your family a happy Independence Day, and hope that you are able to appreciate the freedoms that so many others have longed to enjoy.
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