The Declaration of Independence changed forever the meaning of American freedom. It completed the shift from the rights of Englishmen to the rights of mankind as the object of American independence. In Jefferson’s language, “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God,” not the British constitution or the heritage of the freeborn Englishman, justified independence. No longer a set of specific rights, no longer a privilege to be enjoyed by a corporate body or people in certain social circumstances, liberty had become a universal entitlement.

Jefferson’s argument—natural rights, the right to resist arbitrary authority, etc.—drew on the writings of John Locke, who, as explained in the previous chapter, saw government as resting on a “social contract,” violation of which destroyed the legitimacy of authority. But when Jefferson substituted the “pursuit of happiness” for property in the familiar Lockean triad that opens the Declaration, he tied the new nation’s star to an open-ended, democratic process whereby individuals develop their own potential and seek to realize their own life goals. Individual self-fulfillment, unimpeded by government, would become a central element of American freedom. Tradition would no longer rule the present, and Americans could shape their society as they saw fit.

America as a symbol of liberty, a 1775 engraving from the cover of the Pennsylvania Magazine, edited by Thomas Paine soon after his arrival in America. The shield displays the colony’s coat of arms. The female figure holding a liberty cap is surrounded by weaponry of the patriotic struggle, including a cartridge box marked “liberty,” hanging from a tree (right).

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