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Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence and King Wu’s First Great Pronouncement

  • Author(s): Schneewind, Sarah
  • et al.
Abstract

Documents that legitimate the overthrow of an old regime and the establishment of a new one may look similar simply because of similar political needs. Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence justifies rejection of the king and of monarchy itself. It shares a rhetorical structure with a Han-era reconstruction/forgery of a speech by King Wu, who overthrew the Shang dynasty and established the Zhou state in the name of a new, non-ancestral deity, Heaven. Scholars have traced many influences on Jefferson’s thinking and on the content of the Declaration, but none accounts for its structure. A full translation of the Shang Shu or Book of History/Documents was published in French several years before the Declaration was written. We know that Jefferson himself had already read about China before 1776, for we have a letter in which he recommends Chinese translations to a relative. It is possible – although it cannot be definitively shown – that he had read King Wu’s Pronouncement and had it in mind when writing the Declaration. Whether or not the connection exists, the comparison of the two texts can be pedagogically useful in history classes.

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