In this context, then, the revolt of the British colonies in North America has been defined as the first assertion of the right of national and democratic self-determination in the history of the world. Resenting domination from across the seas, and especially the imposition of taxes without representation, the American colonists invoked natural law and the natural rights of man, drawing inspiration from the writings of John Locke to support their view. Locke taught that political societies are based upon the consent of the people who compose them, each of whom agrees to submit to the majority. Man has a natural right to life, liberty, and property. Sovereignty belongs to the people and is therefore limited by the necessity to protect the individual members.
Thomas Jefferson emphasized Locke's theories as American ideals and epitomized the republican spirit of the century. In drafting the Declaration of Independence in June 1776, Jefferson stated his fundamental philosophy of government, upon which the modern concept of self-determination rests. He asserted that "all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with inherent and unalienable Rights ["certain unalienable Rights" in the Continental Congress's final draft], that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness"; that the "just Powers" of government are established "by the Consent of the governed" to protect these rights; and that when government does not, "it is the Right of the People to alter or abolish it, and to institute new Government."
In considering the American Revolution as the seminal example of the modern principle of self-determination, it is important to focus attention on both elements of Jefferson's view. He was concerned not only with throwing off the foreign yoke but also with ensuring that the government was that of the people and that their will was supreme.
Since the formation of the United States, American statesmen have continually expressed sympathy for the basic principle of self-determination. In 1796, President George Washington stated that he was stirred "whenever, in any country, he saw an oppressed nation unfurl the banner of freedom." Three years earlier, Thomas Jefferson, then the American secretary of state, had said: "We surely cannot deny to any nation that right whereon our own is founded—that every one may govern itself according to whatever form it pleases and change those forms at its own will."
Jefferson's view, supported by his fellow Virginians James Madison and James Monroe, was widely accepted by the American public during the ensuing years although never actually implemented as official policy. Nevertheless, regardless of its original intent, throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries the Declaration of Independence provided a beacon of hope both to European peoples struggling for independence against autocratic governments and to colonial peoples seeking to advance toward independence. Frequently, American idealists threatened to drag the nation into European affairs by demanding that the government underwrite a policy of liberation abroad. For example, when the Greeks staged an abortive independence movement against the Turks in the 1820s, the Monroe administration was assailed by Daniel Webster in Congress and by many others for its apparent indifference to the cause of liberty in other parts of the world. Although realists like John Quincy Adams opposed the expression of sentiments unsupported by action, President James Monroe nonetheless placed on record his public support of the Greek struggle for self-determination in his famous message of December 1823.