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When thinking about the American Revolution, one is soon confronted by the puzzle of precisely which revolution is up for discussion. As many scholars of American political thought have noted, one can make a strong case for two revolutionary moments in the founding days of the American republic: the declared separation from Britain in 1776 and the 1789 constitutional revolution. While both of these distinctive moments profoundly influenced the way people think about rights, this essay will focus on the initial revolutionary statement, the American Declaration of Independence. Doing so will enable us to examine closely both the immediate and the lasting impact of the American colonists’ decision to break away from the British Empire—a move prompted by the perceived infringement on their basic rights.
The first section of the entry looks closely at the philosophical roots of the American declaration and the rights that it put forward, while the second section considers the declaration from a comparative perspective. The first part looks at the relationship between Jefferson’s ideas and those of political philosopher John Locke, while the second part considers the relationship between the American declaration, the English Bill of Rights that preceded it, and the French declaration which came after it. Next, an argument is made about universality and particularity with regard to basic rights, especially noting the language employed by the American founders. Finally, and closely related to the universality debate, the argument is put forth that—while the American Revolution represented a great leap forward with regard to the idea of basic human rights—the founders also left much work to be done, particularly in terms of applying those rights to an ever-expanding circle of individuals and groups.