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U.S. Independence: Result of an Enlightened Mind?

When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the Powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which compel them to separation.

 

With these stirring and lofty phrases the colonists of 1776 were impelled to revolution by the daring action of men met in Congress in Independence Hall, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  It is because there were patriots who dared to stand forth in defiance of the sovereignty of the king of England that we are citizens of a free and independent Republic, the United States of America.

On July 4, 1961, citizens of the United States of America observe 185 years of separation from the crown of England.  Historically this country was settled and colonized through the instrumentality of imperialistic sovereigns of the British Isles.  It was their desire to sponsor colonies which would add to the wealth of the mother country.  Colonies were not sponsored for the sake of the colonies but colonies were sponsored so that the sponsor would be benefited financially.

There were those, however, who risked their fortunes and their lives to become settlers of this new country.  As adventuresome pioneers they were loathe to admit that a venture into a little known country was for the benefit of the mother country.  They took the position that settlers had come to the American wilds and had fought for their own existence and therefore were entitled to hold land apart from the authority of the Parliament.

Thomas Jefferson, the apostle of the enlightenment, was one of the chief proponents of the right to independent national life by the American colonists.  It was he who was most responsible for the writing of the official Declaration of Independence.  Even though he contributed very little toward the actual winning of independence  he contributed much in the war of words.  His two major contributions were A Summary View of the Rights of British America (1774) and A Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking up Arms (1776).

In his Summary View Jefferson took the position that Parliament had no authority over the American colonies and that certainly the crown which was only a figurehead had little or nothing to say.  His position was that relation between the colonies and the Mother Country was the same as that between Scotland and England from the accession of James I until the Act of Union.  During this period these two political entities had the same chief executive but no other necessary political connection.  Jefferson denied completely the authority of Parliament over the American colonies as he wrote in the white heat of indignation against the coercive acts of the British government.  Students of U.S. History will recognize these coercive acts in the form of the Navigation Acts of 1763, the Townshend Acts of 1767 and the Intolerable Acts of 1774.  These acts all epitomized a form of authority which Jefferson and many other vociferous American colonists heatedly disputed.

Fundamental to an understanding of the spirit of the age as personified in the person of Thomas Jefferson is an understanding of the basic philosophy of the man who distinguished himself so admirably during this golden age of written verbiage with the mother country.

Thomas Jefferson was an honest Pelagian.  Throughout his life he believed and propagated beliefs that indicate that he believed that he could contribute to the creation of social and economic conditions in which men might develop to the limit of their potentialities.  He believed in the ethical perfectibility of man by his own efforts.  The impossibility of this position is immediately evident to anyone who is Biblically orientated and to one who believes the Scriptures.

We have called Jefferson the apostle of the enlightenment.  We call him this because the Enlightenment was a philosophic movement of the 18th century which was characterized by a lively questioning of authority as it was historically understood.  There was much theorizing in the sphere of politics and Jefferson was one of the chief advocates of new ideas in the field of politics and government.  The Enlightenment was a movement in Europe and was rapidly developing among the intellectual elite in the British colonies on the American continent.

Kant, a German philosopher, described the Enlightenment as “man’s coming of age from the state of infancy which rendered him incapable of using his reason without the aid of others.”  This of course is only Kant’s description of the Enlightenment but as a period in history it can be distinguished from other periods of basic thought and theory.  Then Enlightenment is distinguished primarily by the fervent efforts of leading personalities to make reason the absolute standard of human life and behavior.  Reason and pure logic were the only legitimate means that man might employ to shed the light of knowledge upon the mind and conscience of any man.

It should be quite evident, therefore, that the term Enlightenment as applied to a definite period in history presupposes a previous period of darkness and misunderstanding.  This is exactly the way in which the “enlightened” man of the 18th century viewed men of centuries gone before.  To the rationalist of the Enlightenment the medieval times and even the Reformation were darkened by the superstitions of religion.  Because the 18th century man had his mind enlightened by the use of pure reason, he was able to discover truth.

We must note that Jefferson was an avid reader of the English philosophers and writers.  He read Hobbes, Locke, and Bolingbroke, who were all critical of the past and constituted the chief thinkers during the age of the Enlightenment in England.   These Englishmen were not so critical as were the men of the French enlightenment whose philosophy received its chief impetus from the moral corruption which was prevalent in French royal court and the abuse of power by the French king.

Locke, a favorite of Thomas Jefferson is classified and characterized as follows:

  1. “latitudinarian” and broad church-man in theology and a liberal in politics, he argued against the divine right of kings and the authority of the Bible and the Church, and maintained that political sovereignty rests upon the consent of the governed, (the people A.L.) and the ecclesiastical authority upon the consent of reason.  He was also an ardent defender of freedom of thought and speech.

It is fundamentally the opinions of Locke which are embodied in Jefferson’s immortal Declaration of Independence and which constitute the foundation of the American nation.  Jefferson was a man with the “forward look,” this was the new “frontier” of the 18th century.  He adopted a confident attitude toward natural rights and natural law and with this an attitude of hostility toward arbitrary power of any kind.

In perspicuous and concise language Jefferson sets forth in the first two paragraphs of the declaration his political philosophy of government.  This political philosophy he had learned and borrowed from John Locke who had advanced what is called the “social contract” theory of government.  According to this theory, the government enters into a contract with its subjects in which the people delegate authority to the government and the government agrees to protect the “natural rights” of the people.  These natural rights are life, liberty, and the right to own property.  When the government violates this contract, the people may justifiably remove the government, by force if necessary, and replace it with one that will be responsive to the will of the majority of the people.

In conclusion we note briefly:

  1. Jefferson assumes the ability of man to perfect himself.  This we deny because of our belief in the total incapability and depravity of human nature.
  2. Jefferson assumes natural rights.  This is unscriptural and it is not a sound basis for the establishment of government.  Man is the criterion then of when these natural rights are being protected.  This is pure relativism and stands neither the test of time nor the test of the Word of God.
  3. Jefferson makes the government dependent on the will of people and not on the will of God.  (Cf. Rom. 13:1-2 in this connection.  Paul, as he was inspired by the Holy Spirit, makes one very pointed remark – concerning the relation of man to government – the higher powers which be are ordained of God.)
  4. Jefferson’s concept of “freedom” is basically license and not freedom.  The Bible knows only one kind of freedom and that is freedom to do the will of God as taught us in inspired Scriptures.  Freedom as Jefferson conceives of it is shrouded in the mists of unbelieving humanitarianism and relativism.  This is the concept of the modern liberal thinker in theology.
  5. Jefferson’s concept of government and politics is basically a Renaissance concept and is not a Reformation or Calvinistic concept of Government.  Calvin neither believed nor would he have ever taught the concepts embodied in the Declaration of Independence.