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

in Journal of American-East Asian Relations
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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.

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

in Journal of American-East Asian Relations




Michael NylanThe Five “Confucian” Classics (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press2001) 130 and notes. The classic Documents contains both texts dating from very close to the Zhou conquest and texts purporting to be more ancient but that were written at several later periods up to about 300 AD. The “Taishi” text has a convoluted history but for the purposes of this article what matters is this received version combining traces of antiquity with Han predilections.


Pauline MaierAmerican Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence (New York: Knopf1997) 20 42 50-51 (on earlier examples in the genre of the “declaration”) 130-31 (arguing that the Declaration of Independence was mainly for domestic consumption) 253n79.


Shaughnessy“Western Zhou” 309.


 See for instance R. Bin WongChina Transformed: Historical Change and the Limits of European Experience (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press1997).


MaierAmerican Scripturexvi 131. While the Declaration was a written document meant to be read aloud King Wu’s Pronouncement was originally a speech which was later written down.


MaierAmerican Scripture95.


MaierAmerican Scripturexvii.


DonovanMr. Jefferson’s Declaration127.


For instance Carl BeckerThe Declaration of Independence: A Study in the History of Political Ideas (1922; New York: Vintage Books, 19421970); Dumbauld Declaration; Maier American Scripture; Donovan Mr. Jefferson’s Declaration; Robert Darnton “The Pursuit of Happiness: Voltaire and Jefferson” in his George Washington’s False Teeth: An Unconventional Guide to the Eighteenth Century (New York: Norton 2003) among others.


MaierAmerican Scripture104.


Wilber Samuel Howell“The Declaration of Independence and Eighteenth-Century Logic,” William and Mary QuarterlyThird Series 18 (1961) esp. 480. Howell’s case also rests on the word “self-evident” but he cannot show that Jefferson himself replaced “sacred and undeniable” with “self-evident” (478) and if Jefferson had to go back and insert the term the case is already weakened. Further to read the first paragraph as providing a “logical definition” (479) is a stretch.


MaierAmerican Scripture123 57.


 See John Kuo Wei TchenNew York Before Chinatown: Orientalism and the Shaping of American Culture: 1776-1882 (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press1999); and Sarah Schneewind “Clean Politics: Race and Class Imperialism and Nationalism Etiquette and Consumption in the Chinese and American Revolutions” Asia-Pacific Journal 45-3-09 9 November 2009.


G. Pauthier Confucius et al.Les livres sacrés de l'Orient: comprenant: le Chou-king ou le Livre par excellence: les Sse-chou ou les Quatre livres moraux de Confucius et de ses disciples: les Lois de Manou…: le Koran de Mahomet (Paris: Société du Panthéon littéraire1843). Accessed through HathiTrust on 2 July 2011. The document in question is the first part of the first document in Part IV of le Chou-king 84-85.


David Armitage“Review: The Declaration of Independence: Its Many Histories,” William and Mary QuarterlyThird Series 65 (2008).


Carol Gluck“The End of Elsewhere: Writing Modernity Now,” in “AHR Roundtable: Historians and the Question of Modernity,” American Historical Review 116 (2011) 676-77.

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