The Declaration of Independence, authored chiefly by Thomas Jefferson, remains the central document of the United States of America. Influenced by the ideas of the Enlightenment, Jefferson primarily drew from the natural rights principles of the English philosopher John Locke. He was also likely influenced by early-eighteenth century English Whig writers, such as John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon.
In June 1776, on the eve of independence, the Continental Congress appointed Jefferson to a special committee tasked with drawing up the Declaration. His fellow committee members included John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Robert Livingston, and Roger Sherman. Because others on the committee were busy with other work, Jefferson was selected to write up the initial draft. The 33-year old Virginian sought not simply to catalog the British government’s abuses of power, but he also wished to articulate the fundamental principles upon which the new nation would be founded. Jefferson achieved this end in the Declaration’s famous two-paragraph preamble, where he asserted that “all men are created equal” and “are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” Throughout his life, Jefferson insisted that he broke no new ideological ground with these assertions. Indeed, he later wrote that his aim was “not to find out new principles, or new arguments never before thought of,” but rather to “place before mankind the common sense of the subject.” Jefferson’s claim that he merely distilled commonly-accepted political principles held by other revolutionary leaders is supported by contemporary evidence. On July 2, 1776, the Continental Congress closely reviewed and edited Jefferson’s draft. Although a number of alterations and deletions were made, Congress made no attempt to alter or weaken the preamble’s core philosophical principles.