The rights were gradually evolving ever since the time of Magna Carta (1215). Rotten King John didn't exactly sign it of his own free will: his nobles essentially put a gun to his head and forced him to sign it.
By the time of the English Enlightenment, the thought was in the wind that there were certain rights which were held by the people, no matter how base or common.
The Revolutionary War was in some respects analogous to the US experience in the Vietnam War. Parliament was split between the hard-nose faction and others who basically supported the rebels. The Declaration basically was written to play into the hands of the latter group. If the Brits really wanted to they could have squashed us like a bug.
The Declaration and the United States weren't created ex nihilo. The 18th century didn't suddenly make a leap from absolute monarchy to republican democracy. Human freedom had advanced and retreated many times over the centuries, never perfect, and never embracing everyone, but in various ways and degress from the democracy of the Greek city-states, through the res publica (the public things) of the Rome between the last king and the first emperor, which gave us the word "republic", to the Althing of Iceland, founded in 930, the oldest parliament in Europe.
The English monarchy had not been "absolute" for a very long time by 1776, and while the king and the noblity certainly held much power and wealth, there was a rising middle class that had already made the House of Commons the more important of the two houses of Parliament and something approaching equal protection under the laws was at least viewed as an ideal, if not always acheived in practice. The indictment against the King in the Declaration does not describe "business as usual" for the times. The colonists were specifically complaining that the King was denying them long-established rights already due them as Englishmen.
The colonists themselves were, in many respects, even freer than British subjects in the mother country, if only because they were farther from the centers of power. (The obvious exception being the slaves who were not, technically, "colonists")
By the time of the Revolution all of the colonies had a couple of hundred years experience of local government from town meetings to colonial legislatures and, in some cases, locally elected governors rather than Royal appointees. So they weren't starting from scratch. One reason that both the Continetal Congress and the Constitutional Convention were such brilliant successes was that they were run by men with long experience of small "d" democratic politics - legislators, governors, mayors, lawyers and judges. These men, in turn, drew on centuries of the tradition of the Common Law as developed in both England and in their own colonies, and on the experience and precedents of the governments of those colonies. They weren't starting from scratch.
(This tradition of local government is one of the things the set the British-settled colonies of North America on such a different path than the Spanish and Portugeuse-settled colonies to the south. The British colonies were settled by people who had no wish to return to the mother country. They were "residential" colonies established by people who wanted to live there permanently and extend or establish British civilization - or a purified version of it - in a new land. The others were "exploitation" colonies, not planted by farmers eager to establish estates to pass on to their progeny, but by soldiers and adventurers eager to extract mineral and other wealth, ship it to the mother country and eventually return there themselves to comfortable retirement or political careers. Such colonies had no need for the kind of civil government, law courts or locally elected officials that their northern neighbors had, and therefore didn't develop them. So at independence they had no such traditions to draw on and were at a disadvantage in establishing their own democracies.)
The Founders and Framers also drew very heavily on the ancient past (especially Rome, which was held up as an ideal in the British intellectual tradition in which they were all educated) and on a philosophical tradition that had been developing in England, Scotland and (to a lesser degree) on the Continent in the period leading up to the Revolution. John Locke, David Hume, Hobbes, and Montesquie all influenced the ideas and even the language of both documents. (Jefferson's "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" is a more poetic version of the "life, liberty and property" the formula used by earlier writers.)
It is no accident that the Declaration of Independence, Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations, the fundamental text of liberal (in the classical sense) economics were all published in the pivotal year of 1776. They were all products of the same intellectual ferment and the same ancient streams of thought.
When I ask my question: where are their (Adams, Jefferson, Franklin, et al.) kind today? would your answer be that there are simply not people (at least in the US) in political power who were as educated as these men in classical political theory? I always figure that is a "missing piece" in the current U.S. political landscape...even though so many of our political leaders graduate from some of the best institutions available (Harvard, Yale, Oxford, etc.).
Thanks for the replies. I read up on some English history. In the 16th century there was a big power struggle between the parliament and the king, mainly perpetrated by the rise of the middle class. At the end of the century the Bill of Rights was created, effectively permanently limiting the power of the Monarch and guaranteeing certain rights to citizens. It makes more sense now knowing this, as the constitution was influenced from this.
I believe that many, if not most of the Founding Fathers had the benefit of a classical education. They would have read the great Greek philosophers; Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, as well as the writings of the Romans Seneca and Cicero, to name a few.
As others have mentioned, writers of The Age of Enlightenment, especially John Locke, had a profound influence. As well, to use a little Common Sense Thomas Paine should also be mentioned.
Although only 9 signers of the Declaration of Independence and 13 signers of the U.S. Constitution were known to be Freemasons, some have ascribed Masonic teachings and metaphysical ideals as having influenced both documents.
Traditionally, the American Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution have a basis in:
The English Charter of Liberties also called the Coronation Charter, of 1100.
The English Magna Carta, of 1215.
The Mayflower Compact, of 1620.
The Connecticut Constitution, or Fundamental Orders, of 1638.
And my point, Dave, is that while those teachings are certainly available to anyone who wants to read them today...why do I fear that very few of our national leaders in the U.S. bother to seek them out?
Even if they are exposed to them in college (and I'm not convinced that they are anymore), I'd like to think that they'd have a natural curiosity to learn about how issues similar to those they address today were dealt-with by their predecessors.
Yes, we are. During the Napoleontic occupation, Napoleon's brother Louis was made King of The Netherlands. When he took his position too seriously, Napoleon Bonaparte replaced him, but after he himself was slain, "we" decided to appoint the Prince of Orange in his place as King William I.
Since then we have a constitutional Monarchy. But before this, and after we swore off the King of Spain, we weren't a Monarchy.
Under Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor and king of Spain, the region was part of the Seventeen Provinces of the Netherlands, which also includes most of present-day Belgium, Luxembourg, and some land of France and Germany. In 1568 the Eighty Years' War started after the entire population had been condemned to death by the Holy See and confirmed by the king, and in 1579, the northern half of the Seventeen Provinces declared itself independent and formed the Union of Utrecht, which is seen as the foundation of the modern Netherlands. Philip II, the son of Charles V, was not prepared to let them go that easily. It would not be until 1648 that Spain would recognize Dutch independence.
After gaining formal independence from the Spanish Empire under King Philip IV, the Dutch grew to become one of the major seafaring and economic powers of the 17th century during the period of the Republic of the Seven United Netherlands. In the era, referred to as the Dutch Golden Age, colonies and trading posts were established all over the globe. (See Dutch colonial empire)
Many economic historians regard the Netherlands as the first thoroughly capitalist country in the world. In early modern Europe it featured the wealthiest trading city (Amsterdam) and the first full-time stock exchange. The inventiveness of the traders led to insurance and retirement funds as well as such less benign phenomena as the boom-bust cycle, the world's first asset-inflation bubble, the tulip mania of 1636-1637, and according to Murray Sayle, the world's first bear raider - Isaac le Maire, who forced prices down by dumping stock and then buying it back at a discount ("Japan Goes Dutch", London Review of Books [April 5, 2001]: 3-7).
After briefly being incorporated in the First French Empire under Napoleon, the Kingdom of the Netherlands was formed in 1815, consisting of the present day Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg. In addition, the king of the Netherlands became hereditary Grand Duke of Luxembourg. Belgium rebelled and gained independence in 1830, while the personal union between Luxembourg and the Netherlands was severed in 1890 as a result of ascendancy laws which prevented Queen Wilhelmina from becoming Grand Duke.
A country generally needs an impetous to change it's system of governance. It's more to the point to say, 'why shouldn't they stay a monarchy'.
It's a point of history that is alien to our modern sensibilites that Britain is still a constitutional monarchy because the common people wanted a head of state that would not change on a regular basis.
Some people used to believe in the notion of the platonic philosopher King, trained from birth to assume the mantal. Obviously, in the modern era, nobody seriously holds this view.
It was the Napoleontic period, which sort of accustomed people to the notion of having a King (again). The Orange-Nassau family had been loved for a long time by a vast majority of the general public. Many times, when we had had a Stadhouder-less period, the then living heir was called upon when war or just an invasion took place, and always had they brought unity (then) and, finally, success again.
The word "Stadhouder" means "place-holder" (as in "holding the place of a vacant Monarch"), so at that moment after Napoleon's defeat, the time and the minds of the people were ready to grant the family the title of King, instead of just "placeholder to the king".
Paine had a great influence on the general population, but little or none on the Founders and the Framers, so I don't see a problem with omitting him from the list of forerunners of the Declaration. Paine was a great one for blowing things up (metaphorically), but he had very muddled ideas about what sort of thing should be erected in place of the existing order, and none at all about how to build it. He was terrific at rousing passions and motivating people, hopeless at directing them or organizing them to accomplish anything useful. He certainly helped advance the cause of liberty by lighting a fire among the people, especially the common people, but he was too much of an anarchist at heart to contribute anything useful when it came time to bring a new society into being. He was much more at home in the chaos and emotion of the French Revolution than in the cool, rational councils of the American, and influenced events there, for good and ill, much more than those on the other side of the Atlantic.
I'm also guessing that there was an anti-republican backlash on account of the evils of the French Revolution. If I'm not mistaken, the Dutch Anti-Revolutionary Party was the only political group ever to denounce Liberty, Equality, and Brotherhood (preferring Providence, Hierarchy, and Sphere Sovereignty).