Hannes Richter

The Declaration of Independence - the Austrian Connection

Hannes Richter
by Valentin Inzko

While preparing the draft of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson searched for those democratic principles and ideas that would best serve the young American nation. There were only few examples of living democracy at hand that helped him in this important undertaking, and the scholar and bibliophile Jefferson consulted all of them.

Among those was the author Aeneas Silvio Piccolomini, who later became Pope Pius II (1405-1464). Another was the eminent French lawyer, Jean Bodin (1529 -1596) who had written The Republic. This book describes a remarkable Carinthian custom relating to the installation of dukes by ordinary people.

...There is nothing to compare with this custom observed in Carinthia, today's southernmost province of Austria, where in the vicinity of Saint Vitus [St. Veit] one can see a stone of marble in a meadow. A peasant sitting on the stone cried out in Slovenian:  Who comes forward so boldly? The people answered it was the duke. The peasant asked again:  Can he be a judge? Is he concerned with the well-being of the country? Was he born a free man? Does he observe the true religion?...

The people answered:  He is and he will be. Then the peasant slapped the duke gently. After promising the peasant he would be exempt from public burdens, the duke stepped upon the stone and brandishing his sword, he promised the people to be a righteous judge. He attended the mass still clad in the same vestments. Later he donned the ducal vestments and returned to the stone, where the people payed homage to him and rendered the oath of fealty.

In November 1967, Senator Frank Lausche addressed his colleagues in the U. S. Senate and spoke of this custom and the possible impact it may have had on Thomas Jefferson while he was drafting the Declaration of Independence.

Jefferson evidently considered the ancient ritual of the Installation of the Dukes of Carinthia a common law precedent and a confirmation of the Contractual Theory upon which he based his claim for American Independence. And only six years ago, President Clinton referred to this ancient Carinthian ritual in one of his speeches during a visit to Slovenia.

The history of the installation of the dukes is described in the book, The Genesis of the Contractual Theory and the Installation of the Dukes of Carinthia, by Dr. Joseph Felician, a former member of the faculty of St. John s College, Cleveland.

Herzogenstuhl (Ducal Throne), Carinthia, Austria

In Jefferson's copy of Bodin's work Professor Felician discovered that Jefferson had initialled two pages. On one page was Bodin's definition and characterization of a tyrant, which was quite similar in concept to phrases used in the Declaration of Independence. On the other page was a description of the installation of the Dukes of Carinthia, a ritual which as I have already mentioned may have contributed to the draft of the American Constitution.

Dr. Felician makes several assumptions, one being that all men are equal in a political sense and that no person has a natural right to rule another. But since society must have some form of government, a theory developed based on these two assumptions - the denial of the natural right to govern and the need for government.The theory stipulates that there is a contract between those who rule and those who are to be ruled, and each party has rights and obligations under this contract.

This ancient Carinthian custom was practiced until 1414, when Duke Ernst der Eiserne, the grandfather of Maximilian was installed in Carinthia. There are many villages left where free peasants once lived. These villages are called Edling or Koseze in Slovenian. The family name Edlinger, for example, is quite common in Austria as is its Slovenian equivalent Koseski.

The installation of the dukes of Carinthia can be seen in the hall of the coat-of-arms of the Carinthian Landhaus, seat of the Carinthian parliament. Here a large painting by Josef Ferdinand Fromiller depicts the installation of the duke.

As a Carinthian of Slovenian origin, I am proud of this particular segment of history, most probably connected to the drafting of the Declaration of Independence and the United States of America.

Ambassador Valentin Inzko, born 1949 in Klagenfurt, studied Law and Slavic Languages at the University of Graz. He attended the Diplomatic Academy in Vienna and was posted in Mongolia and Sri Lanka (UNDP). He also served the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Belgrade, New York, Prague, and Bosnia Herzegovina. He is currently Ambassador to Slovenia and is married to opera singer Bernarda Fink.