Harry S. Truman explicitly tried to tie Thomas Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence to the events and crusades of his own day. He saw the Declaration of Independence as an international document, belonging to all peoples yearning for freedom.

When the first copy of the first volume of The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, edited by Julian P. Boyd, it was given to President Harry S. Truman, who received it gratefully.[1] Indeed, for better or worse, Truman referenced Jefferson frequently, and he seemed to believe he held a special relationship with the third president. “Throughout his life Jefferson waged an uncompromising fight against tyranny,” Truman said, accepting the first copy. “The search for human liberty was a goal which he pursued with burning zeal. The spirit of democracy shines through everything he ever wrote.”[2] Yet, Truman continued, the world had changed dramatically since the day of Jefferson, and his words, once meant for the citizens of the United States, must now extend to the citizens of the world. “Our stage is larger—our struggle must be waged over the whole world, not merely in our own country.”[3] The new Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Truman hoped, would encourage new generations of women and men to find “hope and faith” in the workings of liberty and democracy. Such had defeated the National Socialists, but the International Socialists—the Soviet Union—remained. “At a time when democracy is meeting the greatest challenge in its history, we need to turn to the sources of our own democratic faith for new inspiration and new strength.”[4]

While some contemporaries thought that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization—and its founding documents—best reflected an international version of the Declaration of Independence, Truman and his allies saw the greatest reflection in the United Nations and especially in its Declaration of Human Rights.[5] “After two and a half years of labor and bitter ideological disputes, the Social Committee of the General Assembly of the United Nations has adopted a document which is unique in man’s age-old struggle for liberty and human dignity. This document, which must still be approved by the Assembly itself, is a Declaration of Human Rights which not only embraces but goes beyond all previous declarations of that kind, including Magna Charta, the Declaration of Independence, the Rights of Man, and the Bill of Rights—all indispensable parts of every modern Constitution.”[6] America, its proponents claimed, had created an American Idea or an American Credo through the Declaration of Independence. It, taken together with the letters and arguments of early American statesmen and women, had created what could only be known as a “Bible of America,” Horace M. Kallen of the New School of Social Research argued in 1953.[7]

The American Idea, in sum, is the idea of equal liberty for all persons everywhere to move, to inquire, to think, to believe, to speak, to write, to read, to listen, to labor, to venture, by themselves alone or with companions, at their own risk, under the equal protection of the laws. The American who believes in the American Idea pledges his life, his fortune, and his sacred honor to its support, at home and abroad. The pledge establishes him a free citizen of an open society.[8]

Naturally, such high-minded ideals would attract the corrupt to fight against it, seeing in it the death-knell of its own beliefs. The Loyalists in the American Revolution and the Confederates in the American Civil War had revealed themselves as diabolic forces against the progress of humankind. They are succeeded, one scholar claimed, by the National Socialists and the Communists. “Today this Totalitarianism, now incarnate in communazi Soviet Russia, has forced a cold war upon them and is threatening a third and hot world war. It is of record that totalitarianisms have always had their advocates and conspirators among the peoples of America, from the tories and royalists of the Revolution to the totalitarians of our own day. All invoke the American principle of equal liberty for the different as warrant for activities which ultimately would abolish the principle and subvert the liberty.”[9]

Of all American Cold Warriors, though, Truman most explicitly tried to tie Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence to the events and crusades of his own day. For Truman, 1776 began all of the revolutionary events of the modern world, beginning first with inspiring the French Revolution and then all of the revolutions of Latin America. Today, “these ideas have stirred the peoples of the Middle East and Asia to create free governments, dedicated to the welfare of the people. The ideas of the American Revolution are still on the march.”[10] Given its own history and the revolutions it inspired, the Declaration of Independence must now be seen—at least in the twentieth century—as an international document, belonging to all peoples yearning for freedom. Such a guarantee cannot be made without an international organization to enforce it. That, of course, would be the job of the United Nations.

There is another way in which our situation today is much like that of the Americans of 1776. Now, once more, we are engaged in launching a new idea—one that has been talked about for centuries, but never successfully put into effect. In those earlier days, we were launching a new kind of national government. This time we are creating a new kind of international organization. We have joined in setting up the United Nations to prevent war and to safeguard peace and freedom. We believe in the United Nations. We believe it is based on the right ideas, as our own country is. We believe it can grow to be strong and accomplish its high purposes.[11]

Just as the Declaration of Independence had to be defended in violent struggle, so the Declaration of Human Rights would have to experience the same. The American people, Truman thought, would never acquiesce in the struggle for such freedom. “We have taken our stand beside other free men, because we have known for 175 years that free men must stand together. We have joined in the defense of freedom without hesitation and without fear, because we have known for 175 years that freedom must be defended.”[12]

The greatest test case of the new Declaration of Human Rights, the longevity of the United Nations, and American resolve for freedom around the world was, of course, the military conflict and police action in Korea.

Men of the armed forces in Korea, you will go down in history as the first army to fight under the flag of a world organization in the defense of human freedom. You have fought well and without reproach. You have enslaved no free man, you have destroyed no free nation, you are guiltless of any country’s blood. Victory may be in your hands, but you are winning a greater thing than military victory, for you are vindicating the ideas of freedom under international law. This is an achievement that serves all mankind, for it has brought all men closer to their goal of peace. It is an achievement that may well prove to be a turning point in world history.[13]

Truly, Truman believed, America must resolve to be the defender of the United Nations itself, the true defender of the Declaration of Independence.

Again, it should be noted, Truman had made similar points throughout his presidency. Before the struggles of the Korean peninsula became a tragic and hot reality for America, in 1947, Truman had already tied the fortunes of Jefferson and the Declaration to the United Nations. In his Jefferson Day speech of that year, he said the United States must be willing to support the United Nations, citing the case of the Monroe Doctrine and Jefferson’s support of it as evidence that he would support the UN. “We, like Jefferson, have witnessed atrocious violations of the rights of nations. We, too, have regarded them as occasions not to be slighted. We, too, have declared our protest. We must make that protest effective by aiding those peoples whose freedoms are endangered by foreign pressures.”[14]

To be sure, Truman’s co-opting of Jefferson did not go unchallenged. Washington, in his Farewell Address, and Jefferson, in his First Inaugural, had openly and unreservedly called for a policy of American republicanism to prevent the entanglement of alliances with powers that felt no virtue or right. Washington had famously stressed an openness in commercial policy, but a reservedness (to the extreme) in foreign entanglements. Not surprisingly, Truman’s most vocal critics came from the anti-war Right. William Henry Chamberlin of The Wall Street Journal wondered aloud what Jefferson might think, had he actually attended any of Truman’s talks. What happened, Chamberlain wondered, to Jefferson’s cautions against government overreach, at home and abroad?[15] “So the foundations of the American [Jeffersonian] idea may be summarized as follows: belief in intense distrust of any concentration of power in government, firm rejection of tyranny, whether of a monarch, a dictator or a mob, faith in equality and opportunity.”[16]

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[1] See Julian P. Boyd, ed., The Papers of Thomas Jefferson 1: 1760-1776 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Pres, 1950).

[2] Text of Truman’s Address on the Jefferson Papers,” New York Times (May 18, 1950): 26.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] See, for example, “Johnson Likens Atlantic Pact to 1776 Document,” New York Herald Tribune (July 5, 1949): 11; William S. White, “Now How Stands Atlantic Alliance?” The Atlanta Constitution (July 3, 1959): 4; and Eleanor Roosevelt, “U.N. is Trying to Improve on Declaration of Independence,” Boston Daily Globe (October 12, 1948): 17. See also, Ralph H. Gabriel, “The Cold War and Changes in American Thought,” Virginia Quarterly Review 35 (Winter 1959): 53-63; Ralph H. Lutz, “The History of the Concept of Freedom,” Bulletin of the American Association of University Professors 36 (Spring 1950): 18-32; and Bernard Wishy, “John Locke and the Spirit of ’76,” Political Science Quarterly 73 (September 1958): 413-425.

[6] “Charter of Human Rights,” New York Times (December 8, 1948): 30.

[7] Horace M. Kallen, “The American Idea, the Cold War, and the Teacher,” Pi Lambda Theta Journal 31 (Summer 1953): 96. See also F.S.C. Northrop, “What Kind of an American Civilization Do We Want?” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 325 (September 1959): 5.

[8] Horace M. Kallen, “The American Idea, the Cold War, and the Teacher,” Pi Lambda Theta Journal 31 (Summer 1953): 96.

[9] Ibid.

[10] “Truman Stresses Principles of Declaration,” Christian Science Monitor (July 5, 1951): 1. Lest this seem too political, it must also be noted that Richard Nixon made almost identical arguments in the same decade. “For the first time in history we have shown independence of Anglo-French policies toward Asia and Africa which seemed to us to reflect colonial tradition…. That Declaration of Independence has had an electrifying effect throughout the world.” See “Nixon Calls U.S. Stand New ‘Declaration of Independence,’” Atlanta Daily World (November 4, 1956), pg. 1.

[11] “Truman Stresses Principles of Declaration,” Christian Science Monitor (July 5, 1951): 1.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] “The Text of President Truman’s Speech at Jefferson Day Dinner,” New York Times (April 6, 1947): 51.

[15] William Henry Chamberlain, “The Wandering Disciples,” Wall Street Journal (May 22, 1950): 6; and William Henry Chamberlain, “The American Idea,” Wall Street Journal (July 3, 1956): 8.

[16] William Henry Chamberlain, “The American Idea,” Wall Street Journal (July 3, 1956): 8. For another strong libertarian approach to Jefferson and the Declaration, see Clarence Manion, “The Founding Fathers and the Natural Law: A Study of the Source of Our Legal Institutions,” American Bar Association Journal 35 (June 1949): 461-464, 529-530.

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