Was Declaration of Independence inspired by Dutch?

June 29, 1998

by Barbara Wolff

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.

See also:
The Library of Congress Web exhibit about the drafting of the documents related to the Declaration of Indpendence.

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."