Jefferson on the right to change one’s government (1776)

Thomas Jefferson

The most famous and perhaps most eloquent expression of a people’s right to “dissolve the political bands” which tie them together was penned by Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) in the Declaration of Independence:

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 impel them to the separation….

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.—That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles, and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness… it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.****

Jefferson took pains to argue that the right of revolution was a limited one, in the sense that one could not do this for weak or frivolous reasons (or “light and transient causes”). It was for this reason that he and his colleagues provided such a long list of grievances against the British monarch in order to prove to the world that their reasons for revolt were serious, longstanding, and many. In essence the grounds for revolution were two: the offending government had to have moved away from the very reason for its being, namely the protection of each individual’s life, liberty, and property (unfortunately too vaguely expressed here as “the pursuit of happiness”); and that there is a clear pattern of behaviour which proves that there is a “design” to create a despotic government over the people. In spite of these restrictions Jefferson obviously thought both conditions had been satisfied by July 1776 and that this therefore established the right to revolution on the part of the American colonists.