Aristotle’s Politics and the Declaration of Independence

The celebration of the 4th of July is more than the coming together of friends and family to share a meal and to watch a fireworks display; it is an opportunity to reflect on the document that set in motion the founding of the United States of America. Cited among the reasons given in the Declaration to dissolve the political bands that existed between the British and those living in the thirteen united states of America are the repeated injuries and usurpations by the King of Great Britain.

The Declaration notes that the King’s actions were contrary to his responsibilities. The excellent legislator, as Aristotle explains in his Politics is: “to see how a city, a family of human beings, and every other sort of partnership will share in the good life and in the happiness that is possible for them” (VII.2). Aristotle’s works certainly informed the thinking of Jefferson, the primary drafter on the committee appointed by Congress for the purpose of drawing up the document.

As he explains the object of the Declaration of Independence in a letter written to Henry Lee (Monticello, May 8, 1825):  “All its authority rests then on the harmonizing sentiments of the day, whether expressed in conversation, in letters, printed essays, or in the elementary books of public right, as Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney, etc.”

Beyond the contrast that we can draw between the excellent legislator and the King of Great Britain, there are several themes in the Declaration of Independence that are informed by Aristotle’s Politics. In addition to the reference to happiness as among the charges of the excellent legislator, near the end of Aristotle’s discussion of the best regime he explains that “happiness is the actualization and complete practice of virtue” (VII.13).  Aristotle explained earlier in the Politics (III.9) that virtue must be a care for every city, thus making a connection between happiness resulting from the virtuous behavior of the citizens and a government providing the conditions for its citizenry to engage in those virtuous activities that lead to happiness. Jefferson, in turn, proclaims in the Declaration that life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are among the unalienable rights of all. Jefferson asserts that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men. The actions of the King of Great Britain hindered those living in America to pursue the fundamental right of happiness and thus it was necessary to institute a new government.

Jefferson, like Aristotle, makes an appeal to nature when he calls on the people to assume among the powers of the earth the separate and equal state to which the laws of nature and of nature’s God entitle them. Later philosophers develop the teaching on the natural law, but Aristotle’s teaching on nature, which clearly informs Jefferson, is comprehensive and is included in his works on Physics and Metaphysics as well as  Politics and Ethics. Aristotle discusses in the Physics both nature and motion and what is in all human beings that moves them or causes them to act. In the Politics he recognizes the city as existing by nature and that human beings are by nature political animals. “Accordingly, there is in everyone by nature an impulse toward this sort of partnership. And yet the one who first constituted [a city] is responsible for the greatest of goods. For just as man is the best of the animals when completed, when separated from law and adjudication he is the worst of all” (I.2).

Declaring independence from Britain was an act that would set in motion a series of events destined to touch not only the lives of all Americans, but also the lives of many across the Atlantic. Jefferson explains that governments should not be changed for light or transient causes. Regime change is a grave matter requiring serious deliberation. Given Aristotle’s pronouncement that the city exists for living well and that the happiness of the citizenry is dependent not only upon their choices and behaviors, but upon a good political regime that allows for and encourages such conduct, it was of paramount importance that the despotic and tyrannical conditions be ended.  Aristotle may not have envisioned a time when a people were so constituted as to be able to make a declaration of independence from a tyrannical regime, but his Politics is a teaching of good government that makes possible the appeal to nature for the exercise of the rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

These thoughts were written in 2015 in remembrance of a fine teacher, Professor Harry V. Jaffa, who died earlier that year. R. I. P.


About Elizabeth Eastman

Elizabeth Eastman holds a Ph.D. in political science from Claremont Graduate School, an M.A. in liberal education from St. John’s College, and a B.A. in French literature and civilization from Scripps College. She has taught in the political science and history departments at Chapman University and Azusa Pacific University, and in the liberal studies programs at Roosevelt University in Chicago and at California State University, Fullerton. She is the 2020-21 senior scholar in residence at the Benson Center for the Study of Western Civilization in Boulder, Colorado.

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2 responses to “Aristotle’s Politics and the Declaration of Independence”

  1. Ah hem! Sorry for the intrusion. Aristocracy is the rule by the “best” (aristos), meaning a hereditary monarchy (derived from the name Aristotle).

    I thought the American Revolutionary War was about rule by a republican form of government of elected representatives, not perpetuation of monarchical rule. Here all this time I thought American government was based on Machiavelli’s notion of republicanism but now I come to learn it is based on Aristotle’s notion of aristocratic rule. Hey, you learn something every day, even from PhD’s in political science. Who knew?

    I will leave you with this salutation: “Aristocracy degenerates into oligarchy” – Niccolo Machiavelli

  2. This thoughtful essay is correct in pointing out some of the similarities between Aristotle’s and Jefferson’s models of the “ideal government.” The one thing it overlooked was the one major “difference” between the two models. Jefferson’s model includes the principal that “all men are created equal,” and by implication that a democratic form of government will be ideal. By contrast, Aristotle wrote that “democracy (opposes) the common good of all,” because commoners (people who work with their hands), are too dull to have a voice in government, or to be given the full rights of “citizenship.”

    This “slight” oversight here of this one major difference, would almost have the quick reader believing that Jefferson would oppose the equality of all men, in favor of rule by the elite, as Aristotle clearly did. In my humble opinion, any interpretation of the Declaration of Independence that does not even attempt to interpret what Jefferson meant by “all men are created equal” will be incomplete at best and misleading at worst.