One of the things that I am finding most interesting about my research on the values of democracy and design is how the process of the Declaration of Independence came about. This is documented in Pauline Maier's American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence (Vintage Books, 1997) but also in Zinn and Arnove's Voices of A People's History of the US (Seven Stories, 2004).
The final Jefferson Declaration was really one of many that proceeded it. Many of the individual states (Virginia, Pennsylvania) and even labor unions (NY Mechanics Union) had declared Independence from Great Britain. One of the things that I talk about in the intro chapter of my book is the implicit and explicit values of American democracy represented in the Declaration of Independence. It really complicates the story:
To define the values of American democratic government myself, I went back to many of the documents of the founding of the United States government in their draft and final forms: the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of the Confederation, the Constitution, Jefferson’s Notes on the Congress Proceedings, the Federalist Papers, the and the Bill of Rights. In the mark outs and additions found in the draft forms of these documents, I came upon probably the most defining American democratic value – the right to acquire and possess property. While “the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property” appears explicitly in the Virginia Declarations of Rights, Thomas Jefferson edited the reference to property from his draft of the Declaration of Independence. Historian, Pauline Maier notes that for Jefferson and his contemporaries, happiness would include the acquiring and possession of property, and thus Jefferson’s editorial decisions “perhaps sacrificed the clarity of meaning for the grace of language.” I propose that, in fact, the story of American democracy is the contradictions between the values of the rights of of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness and the right to acquire and possess property.
Reading the drafts and debates reminds you that all of these democratic values were contested in one way or another. Its important to remember this contestedness as we address our own contemporary American democracy.