June 29, 1998
When he wrote the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson penned words that would live forever in history. But was he the first to write them?
A UW-Madison expert says that Jefferson may have modeled the Declaration after a 16th-century Dutch document.
Stephen Lucas, professor of communication arts, has spent the last 15 years studying the origins of the Declaration, "arguably the most masterful state paper in Western civilization," he says. He has concluded that Jefferson and his colleagues in the Continental Congress based the Declaration in part on the Dutch Plakkaat (plah-KAT) van Verlatinge (vur-LAT-ing-uh), issued in 1581 to justify the Netherlands' revolt against Spanish rule.
While very little is known about the Declaration's true genesis, scholars generally agree that the document was influenced by several British state papers, especially the 1689 Declaration of Rights, which deposed King James II and brought to power William and Mary of Orange. Lucas, however, is the first to point to the Plakkaat, one of the earliest statements of the rights of citizens to combat a tyrannical ruler.
"Of all the models available to Jefferson and the Continental Congress, none provided as precise a template for the Declaration as did the Plakkaat," says Lucas, an expert on historical rhetoric. "When you look at the two documents side by side, you cannot avoid noticing that the American Declaration more closely resembles its Dutch predecessor than any other possible model."
Both documents, for example, begin with a preamble that justifies, in remarkably similar fashion, the right of citizens to revolt against tyrannical authority, Lucas notes. British state documents, he says, say nothing about the natural rights of citizens to remove a tyrannical leader.
It is merely the first of many parallels, Lucas says, between the Declaration and the Plakkaat, written to justify the actions of a long-suffering Dutch people to shake off colonial domination and establish a sovereign nation. Further comparison illustrates more similarities:
· Both present a lengthy catalog of grievances as evidence of their king's tyranny;
· Both document repeated attempts by the authors to seek redress of their complaints through existing legal and civic channels;
· Both conclude that, having repeatedly been rebuffed by despotic authority, the plaintiffs have no alternative but to invoke the right of revolution.
Lucas says it is feasible that Jefferson turned to the Plakkaat in pondering the Declaration. Jefferson used inspirational models in virtually every sphere of his artistic activity, including his design for his home Monticello, which he consciously derived from the great Italian architect Andrea Palladio.
But Lucas stresses that the resemblance between the two papers should not diminish our appreciation of the Declaration.
"Unlike our own age, which prizes originality, the 18th century gave its greatest accolades to those able to master the art of imitation," Lucas says. If done well, the imitation should surpass the model, and Lucas says our Declaration has served as the gold standard of such documents since 1776.
"The Declaration is a work of consummate artistry that sustains a perfect synthesis of style, form and content," Lucas says. "There could be no greater literary or rhetorical achievement."
The rebellious States-General decided on 14 June 1581 to officially declare the throne vacant, because of Philip's behavior, hence the Dutch name for the Act of Abjuration: "Plakkaat van Verlatinghe", which may be translated as "Placard of Desertion." This referred not to desertion of Philip by his subjects, but rather, on a suggested desertion of the Dutch "flock" by their malevolent "shepherd," Philip [II].
A committee of four members – Andries Hessels, greffier (secretary) of the States of Brabant; Jacques Tayaert, pensionary of the city of Ghent; Jacob Valcke, pensionary of the city of Ter Goes (now Goes); and Pieter van Dieven (also known as Petrus Divaeus), pensionary of the city of Mechelen – was charged with drafting what was to become the Act of Abjuration. The Act prohibited the use of the name and seal of Philip in all legal matters, and of his name or arms in minting coins. It gave authority to the Councils of the provinces to henceforth issue the commissions of magistrates. The Act relieved all magistrates of their previous oaths of allegiance to Philip, and prescribed a new oath of allegiance to the States of the province in which they served, according to a form prescribed by the States-General. The actual draft seems to have been written by the audiencier. of the States-General, Jan van Asseliers
The Act was remarkable for of its extensive Preamble, which took the form of an ideological justification, phrased as an indictment (a detailed list of grievances) of King Philip. This form, which is strikingly similar to that of the American Declaration of Independence, has often given rise to speculations that Thomas Jefferson, when he was writing the latter, was at least inspired by the Act of Abjuration.
The Preamble was based on Vindiciae contra tyrannos by Philippe de Mornay, and other works of monarchomachs may have been sources of inspiration also. The rebels, in their appeal to public opinion, may have thought it more important to quote "authoritative" sources and refer to "ancient rights" they wished to defend. By deposing a ruler for having violated the Social Contract with his subjects, they were the first to apply the theoretical ideas that two hundred years later would ultimately form the basis for the American Declaration of Independence.
Excerpt from Introduction to Belgian Law, by Hubert Bocken & Walter de Bondt (Kluwer 2000)
p. 20 IV. Belgium’s contribution to law
“The idea of the rule of law was already present in Flemish cities in the twelfth century….When count William Clito came to power in Flanders in 1127, he guaranteed the inhabitants of his cities a right judgement of the cities’ aldermen against every man and against himself [the count]. The prince is already [at this time then] subject to the laws. The 1127 city charters were not mere words. On 16 February 1128, Ivan, Lord of Aalst, acted as the spokesman of the city of Ghent before the count. Ivan rebuked the court [sic] for not respecting the privileges he had given the burghers of Ghent and other cities. To settle the matter, he proposed [that] a special court should convene, in which the Peers of Flanders and representatives of the clergy and the people would sit to judge over the count. If this court should find the count unworthy of the countship, he would have to give it up. The count did not agree to this and Ivan and Ghent rose in revolt.
William was killed in the civil war that ensued and a new count came to power. The background of the conflict was the opinion of Ghent and other cities that there was a contractual relationship between the count and the citizens. They recognized him as their lord and he, in turn, recognized their privileges. If the count no longer respected his part of the deal by acting against the rights of citizens, they had a right to break their contract and to fight him. This contractual conception of the relationship between ruler and subjects returns in the city charters granted by William’s successor. Thereafter the counts managed to suppress it, but it reappeared at regular times in Flemish history. In 1191 the first article of a charter for the city of Ghent stated that the citizens were only subject to the count as long as he wanted to treat them justly and reasonably….The 1581 Act of Abjuration is reminiscent of Ivan of Aalst. By his failure to respect the rights of his subjects, Philip II of Spain had lost his right to rule the Netherlands.