Just how did a group of thinkers and activists in the 1700s come up with a cherished document that launched a revolution and developed into a dream?
Lawyer David J. Shestokas, a policy advisor for The Heartland Institute, shared some of the surprising answers he found in his research for his new book, Creating the Declaration of Independence, at a continuing series of Wednesday evening events held by The Heartland Institute.
About David Shestokas and His BooksMr. Shestokas earned his B.A. in Political Science from Bradley University in 1975 and his Juris Doctor from The John Marshall Law School, cum laude, in June of 1987. In 1986-87 he served on The John Marshall Law Review. Additionally he studied comparative legal systems at Trinity College in Dublin. As a former Assistant State’s Attorney for the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office in Chicago, IL, Shestokas was involved in over 10,000 criminal prosecutions.
Creating the Declaration of Independence is David Shestokas’ second book. He is also the author of Constitutional Sound Bites that explains the history, philosophy and meaning of our Founding documents. There are over 150 question and answer entries in Constitutional Sound Bites, and while the entries are all related, each conveys a stand-alone message about the philosophy, organization and purpose of America’s Founding Documents.
The Spanish-language edition, Cápsulas Informativas Constitucionales, is the only book that explains America’s Founding Documents for the 36,000.000 Americans more comfortable in Spanish than English. All three books are available on Amazon in print and Kindle editions.
A Journey Back to 1776
As was soon demonstrated through Shestokas’ excellent and passionate presentation of Creating the Declaration of Independence, I was transported back into the minds of Richard Henry Lee, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson in the weeks before July 4, 1776 to learn, among other fascinating details: 1) Lee’s trepidation as he knew when he proposes American Independence to the Second Continental Congress that he is literally risking beheading. 2) The meeting between John Adams and Jefferson at City Tavern as they begin crafting the Declaration. 3) The story of how Jefferson came to reluctantly draft the Declaration when few others, including Adams thought that Jefferson’s assignment was important. 4) A shortcut Jefferson used to craft a document of such immortality on such short notice. 5. How the Declaration of Independence affects the work of the Supreme Court today.
Accurate and Hidden Stories of the Founding
Such unique facts are not found in history books of past generations. They certainly are not found in texts used to instruct today’s youth, where oft-used Zinn’s People’s History of the United States, 1492 to Present offers mutilations of American history to impressionable minds. Extensive research enabled Shestokas to discover heretofore hidden facts about important historical figures in the founding of our nation and then present them in an entertaining and educational way.
Within the easy-to-read, entertaining, and extremely informative pages of Creating the Declaration of Independence — which should be a widely read by students whether in public, private, charter, or home-school venues – adults will likewise discover of how Jefferson came to fashion the abstract truth that stands in the way of despotism and tyranny in creating the American Creed of only 55 words.
The American Creed in 55 Words
And what is this creed that represents the abstract truth? The basic elements of the American mind are set forth in this 55 word opening paragraph of the Declaration of Independence.
“We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable 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…”
As Mr. Shestokas notes in the foreword of his book:
There have been few competitors to Thomas Jefferson, who in his writing the Declaration of Independence, demonstrate his ability to take the English language and express elegantly and simply an idea that was so profound that others write whole books to explain the same concept. A rival to Jefferson’s skill was a student of the Declaration of Independence: Abraham Lincoln.
The Declaration of Independence came to represent an expression of the American mind that was prevalent in the colonies of that time. As Jefferson stated, the Declaration contained no new ideas, nor was there any originality in it on his part. He merely articulated the common sense of what people in that day were thinking.
When Richard Henry Lee, with trepidation, proposed the idea of American Independence on June 7, 1776 to the Second Continental Congress, risking beheading, the Revolutionary War was already in progress. It was on April 19, 1775, when a group of determined Americans stared down the red-coated regulars of the British army in Lexington, Massachusetts, fired a shot was fired to ignite a global conflict that pitted the world’s mightiest nation against her North American colonies.
From the time Adams convinced Jefferson to write the Declaration of Independence on June 14, 1776 by telling Jefferson “you can write ten times better than I can”, Jefferson accomplished his task in only 17 days, the Second Continental Congress spent two days making some changes to the document, and on July 4th, 1776, the Congress voted to accept the Declaration of Independence. This was a monumental and unheard of event, as before July 4th, 1776, world was made up of monarchies ruled by kings and tyrants. In this document Jefferson expressed the crucial difference of the United States in relation to all that had gone before
Jefferson and Adams Construct the Declaration
Given the legal training of both Adams and Jefferson, it was natural for them to agree upon the format for the declaration similar to a civil complaint used to start a lawsuit:
- A preamble or “whereas” statement explaining the purpose of the document.
- A statement of law/philosophy that states the basis for the proposed action.
- A list of grievances against the king.
- Prior actions taken in response to the king’s acts.
- Apply the law/philosophy to the actions to arrive at the conclusion that independence is the appropriate remedy to the grievance.
In writing the Declaration of Independence Jefferson examined the history of revolutions and philosophy. The new nation was to establish a government of law and not of men and had to be based upon law that men could not change. Such law was found in the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God. The “self-evident” truths in the Declaration of Independence are derived from “the Law of Nature and of Nature’s God“. While writing Jefferson sat in a swivel chair (his invention) and played his violin for relaxation.
In those eight words Thomas Jefferson expressed the crucial difference of the United States in relation to all that had gone before:
As a result of this nation’s Natural Law heritage, affirmatively stated in the Declaration of Independence where the secular “Laws of Nature” and the Divine Natural Law “of Nature’s God” are compatible, our Constitution specifically recognizes the existence of rights not listed in the Constitution or rights that exist outside the written positive law.
It is therefore the Declaration that provides the organizing philosophy for the United States government, its legal legitimacy and constraints upon is actions.
All this and more is in Shestokas’ work, Creating the Declaration of Independence. You can follow David Shestokas on Twitter @shestokas and join his Facebook group: Dave Shestokas on the Constitution.
Prior to the talk, Veronica Harrison, marketing director at The Heartland Institute, welcomed attendees, drawing special attention to Heartland Picnic of Freedom open to the public on Saturday, September 9th from 3:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m. at Heartland Headquarter to welcome Heartland’s new president, Dr. Tim Huelskamp to Arlington Heights. Dr. Huelskamp was chosen to succeed Heartland’s long-time president Joseph Bast, who co-founded the organization in 1984. Bast plans to remain at Heartland as CEO until sometime in 2018. There will be free music, refreshments, and hamburgers and brats on the grill for all to enjoy.
More on Jefferson’s influence on the United States is recounted in this article.
[Originally Published at Illinois Review]