Declaration of Independence


Exerpts frm Vattel | Locke vs. Leibniz | Vattel's Natural Law | Law of Nations | Declaration of Independence | U.S. Constitution | Alexander Hamilton

"The Law of Nations" and the Declaration of Independence

"Life, Liberty, and The Pursuit of Happiness, How the Natural Law Concept of G. W. Leibniz Inspired America's Founding Fathers."


``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.''
{--The Declaration of Independence, 1776}

One of the most widespread myths regarding American history is the claim that the American Revolution and the Declaration of Independence were based on the philosophy of John Locke. In fact, the the key organizers of the American Revolution were inspired by a desire to create a nation-state dedicated to a Leibnizian conception of happiness.

John Locke: 'Life, Liberty and Property'

In his writings, John Locke clearly promoted an ideology that is coherent with an oligarcical system. Locke defended as Gods will the concentration of wealth in the hands of a few aristocrats. Locke's philosophy defended the sanctity of life, liberty and property.

The leading opponent of Locke, Gottfried Leibniz, was the leader of the European republican movement. It was his philosophy that inspired the conceptions that were contained in the Declaration of Independence.

Locke vs. Leibniz

As the remainder of this article will discuss, the delegates to the Continental Congress, who drafted and signed the Declaration of Independence, studied Leibniz's conception of natural law, through studying The Law of Nations, by Emmerich de Vattel.

For Exerpts from The Law of Nations:


Emmerich de Vattel was the most popular of all writers on the law of nations in America before, but especially after, the American Revolution. Vattel's {The Law of Nations} arrived, shortly after its publication, in an America, which had already been greatly influenced by Leibniz. No later than 1770, it was used as a textbook in colleges. It was often quoted in speeches before judicial tribunals and legislatures, and used in formulating policy. Following the Revolution, Vattel's influence grew. Vattel was cited far more often than Grotius and Puffendorf, in court proceedings, from 1789 to 1820.

Among those citing Vattel in legal cases and government documents, were Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, James Wilson, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, John Jay, and John Marshall. John Adams, the future delegate to the Continental Congress, second President of the U.S., and father of President John Quincy Adams, recorded in his Diary on Feb. 1, 1763, that after spending the day frivolously, instead of reading and thinking, ``The Idea of M. de Vattel indeed, scowling and frowning, haunted me.'' In 1765, Adams copied into his Diary three statements by Vattel, ``of great use to Judges,'' that laws should be interpreted according to the intent of the author, and every interpretation which leads to absurdity should be rejected. In a letter to the Foreign Minister of Denmark, in 1779, Benjamin Franklin quoted Vattel, and ``his excellent Treatise entitled {Le Droit des Gens.}'' James Madison, as a member of the Continental Congress in 1780, drafted the instructions sent to John Jay, for negotiating a treaty with Spain, which quotes at length from {The Law of Nations.} Jay complained that this letter, which was probably read by the Spanish government, was not in code, and ``Vattel's {Law of Nations,} which I found quoted in a letter from Congress, is prohibited here.'' Later, John Marshall, during his thirty-four years as Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, quoted Vattel by far the most among all authors on the law of nations.

The Law of Nations} and The Declaration of Independence

Delegates to the First and Second Continental Congress, which produced the Declaration of Independence, often consulted {The Law of Nations,} as a reference for their discussions. One important reason why the delegates chose to meet in Carpenters Hall, was that the building also housed the Library Company of Philadelphia. The librarian reported that Vattel was one of the main sources consulted by the delegates during the First Continental Congress, which met from Sept. 5 to Oct. 26, 1774. Charles W.F. Dumas, an ardent supporter of the American cause, printed an edition of {The Law of Nations} in 1774, with his own notes illustrating how the book applied to the American situation. In 1770, Dumas had met Franklin in Holland, and was one of Franklin's key collaborators in his European diplomacy. He sent three copies to Franklin, instructing him to send one to Harvard University, and to put one in the Philadelphia library. Franklin sent Dumas a letter, Dec. 9, 1775, thanking him for the gift. Franklin stated, ``I am much obliged by the kind present you have made us of
your edition of Vattel. It came to us in good season, when the circumstances of a rising state make it necessary frequently to consult the law of nations. Accordingly, that copy which I kept, has been continually in the hands of the members of our congress, now sitting ...|.''

The study of {The Law of Nations} by the delegates to the Continental Congress, to answer questions ``of the circumstances of a rising state,'' is reflected in the Declaration of Independence of July 4, 1776. The central ideas of that document are coherent with Vattel's arguments on the criteria of a people to overthrow a tyrannical sovereign. The Declaration of Independence states that governments are instituted to fulfill the ``inalienable rights'' of ``life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,'' and can be changed if they fail to meet these obligations to the people. Governments should not be changed for light and transient causes, but only after a long chain of abuses to the fundamental rights of the people, with repeated requests for redress of grievances, which were refused. Repeated appeals were made to our ``British Brethren,'' but since they ``have been deaf to the voice of justice and of consanguinity,'' we are prepared to face them either in war or in peace. Therefore, we declare ourselves independent of the British Crown, with the full powers of a sovereign government, ``to levy war, conclude peace, contract alliances, establish commerce, and to do all other acts and things which Independent States may of right do.''

The inclusion of the central conception of {The Law of Nations,} Vattel's Leibnizian concept of happiness, as one of the three inalienable rights, is a crucial statement of the Declaration's Leibnizian character. The Declaration of Independence was prepared by a committee consisting of Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Robert Livingston, and Roger Sherman. Jefferson was assigned by this committee to write the draft of the Declaration, after John Adams turned down the task, because of his numerous other responsibilities. The fact, that Jefferson was a strong proponent of the philosophy of John Locke by as early as 1771, is often used as evidence that the Declaration was based on Locke's philosophy. However, Locke had argued, in his {Two Treatises of Government,} that the fundamental right of men is to ``Life, Liberty, and Property.'' The inclusion of ``the pursuit of happiness,'' rather than ``property,'' as an inalienable right, was a crucial statement, that the American Revolution would be a battle for the establishment of a true Republic, rather than merely a dispute between two groups of aristocrats over the division of property.

U.S. Constitution

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Part 5 of:
"Life, Liberty, and The Pursuit of Happiness, How the Natural Law Concept of G. W. Leibniz Inspired America's Founding Fathers."
For the Introduction and Table of Contents, go to: 
Leibnizian Natural Law


The Declaraction of Independence
of the United States of America

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