Tag Archives: natural rights

Frederick Douglass, Classical Liberal

Frederick Douglass

A new book by Nicholas Buccola offers a fresh look at the political thinking of a man who makes frequent appearances at this blog: Frederick Douglass, the redoubtable 19th century abolitionist and former slave.  In The Political Thought of Frederick Douglass: In Pursuit of American Liberty, Buccola  writes that “Douglass’s arguments against slavery are, in a very important sense, arguments for liberalism.” Douglass enthusiastically embraced a “robust conception of mutual responsibility” and “the ideas of universal self-ownership, natural rights, limited government, and an ethos of self-reliance.”  If that sounds like familiar ideas, then you have probably read the Declaration of Independence and its  list of grievances. Douglass certainly did: His powerful 1852 speech “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” issues a call to paternalistic white abolitionists to consider what independence truly means. Reason Magazine offers a great review of the book. Remember, classical liberalism is broadly defined as the political and economic ideology of self-reliance, personal independence, and a limited government that secures rights and does not grant rights. It is a far cry from the progressive movement and its post-1960s transformation of the word to mean an embrace of centralized government power, government securing social and economic equality, and dependence and reliance on government to ensure equality of outcome. A dose of Frederick Douglass’s liberalism would be sound medicine for the illnesses wrought by the two major parties today and current national politics.


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What Is Liberty? (Part 2)

In Part 1, I described an essential premise found in the Declaration of Independence that makes it the most important human rights document in American history. Liberty is the right to protect the God-given rights possessed by human beings and to protect those rights by force if necessary from anyone using arbitrary power  to strip them of their liberties.
The idea is no small matter. One of the goals of those who exercise arbitrary power is the subjugation of anyone who present a threat. Although this viewpoint is frequently criticized as cynical or even paranoid, history teaches something different. Robert A. Heinlein, the visionary master of science fiction in the 20th century, addresses this issue in Starship Troopers, a book that is really about the nature and responsibilities of citizenship. In one section of the novel, a teacher of a course called “History and Moral Philosophy” (a course required for high school graduation in the fictional world of the 23rd century) refutes the idea that “violence never settles anything.”

Anyone who clings to the historically untrue – and thoroughly immoral – doctrine ‘that violence never settles anything’ I would advise to conjure up the ghosts of Napoleon Bonaparte and of the Duke of Wellington and let them debate it. The ghost of Hitler could referee, and the jury might well be the Dodo, the Great Auk and the Passenger Pigeon. Violence, naked force, has settled more issues in history than has any other factor, and the contrary opinion is wishful thinking at its worst. Breeds that forget this basic truth have always paid for it with their lives and freedom.

Those who are the enemies of freedom are often those quite comfortable with the use of force, even violence to achieve their ends. It all depends on whether a society is willing to acknowledge that reality. Fortunately, the authors of the Declaration had no delusions regarding the link between “liberty,” “life,” and another closely related idea “the pursuit of happiness.”

Life is a basic right, John Locke wrote, because all are equal under the law of nature, created equally by nature’s God, and independent of subordination – therefore, no one can arbitrarily take another’s life unless it is deprived in the cause of justice. Simply taking life for no just cause not only kills the body, but declares the subordination of the victim, denying the people their equal rights. According to Locke:

“The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it, which obliges every one: and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind, who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions: for men being all the workmanship of one omnipotent, and infinitely wise maker; all the servants of one sovereign master, sent into the world by his order, and about his business; they are his property, whose workmanship they are, made to last during his, not one another’s pleasure: and being furnished with like faculties, sharing all in one community of nature, there cannot be supposed any such subordination among us, that may authorize us to destroy one another, as if we were made for one another’s uses, as the inferior ranks of creatures are for our’s. Every one, as he is bound to preserve himself, and not to quit his station wilfully, so by the like reason, when his own preservation comes not in competition, ought he, as much as he can, to preserve the rest of mankind, and may not, unless it be to do justice on an offender, take away, or impair the life, or what tends to the preservation of the life, the liberty, health, limb, or goods of another.”

The American Patriots could not enjoy their liberty and the pursuit of happiness if they were deprived of their lives. Furthermore, they possessed a right to protect not only their lives, but the things that allowed them to maintain their lives (their health, possessions, even the ability to use their bodies). For example, British actions ranging from control over their trade to the Boston Massacre to outright war was all arguably an attack that emphasized the British government’s goal of subordinating Americans into “inferior ranks,” impair life by impairing livelihood, and denying justice based on widely accepted belief’s in natural rights. Listing “life” as an unalienable right sets a standard that the British failed to meet by the measure applied by Jefferson and the Continental Congress.
“The pursuit of happiness” was one of the innovations of the Enlightenment. For centuries, philosophers in the Christian era saw happiness as something ultimately obtainable only in the afterlife; in the 18th century, political thinkers and economists moved it to the realm of everyday life. Many intellectuals of the age dreamed of bringing happiness, which they defined as the greatest good for the greatest number of people, to humanity as a whole through the expansion of liberty and freedom.  Adam Smith writing in The Wealth of Nations described how the pursuit of what he deemed personal economic advantage shaped the possibilities of cooperation without coercion – the stark opposite of British taxation and trade policy imposed on the North American colonies to pay the expenses of the Seven Years’ War – through an “invisible hand” that could promote the good of the community through the free market. “As every individual, therefore, endeavors as much he can both to employ his capital in the support of domestic industry, and so to direct that industry that its produce may be of the greatest value; every individual necessarily labors to render the annual revenue of the society as great as he can. He generally, indeed, neither intends to promote the public interest, nor knows how much he is promoting it … By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it,” said Smith. Technological innovation and social improvement (what we today would sum up as “progress”) could be meted out and its effects measured with a “science of happiness,” according to the Marquis de Chastellux, one of Jefferson’s minor intellectual heroes. The French thinker even established “indices of happiness” based on levels of taxation, working hours, levels of agricultural production, and whether a society possessed slavery or faced war, all of which were impediments to the pursuit of happiness. Of course, Locke, too, had weighed in on the question of happiness, which he linked to the presence of liberty obtaining the greatest good for both individuals and society as a whole:

As therefore the highest perfection of intellectual nature lies in a careful and constant pursuit of true and solid happiness, so the care of ourselves, that we mistake not imaginary for real happiness, is the necessary foundation of our liberty. The stronger ties we have to an unalterable pursuit of happiness in general, which is our greatest good, and which, as such, our desires always follow, the more are we free from any necessary determination of our will to any particular action, and from a necessary compliance with our desire, set upon any particular, and then appearing preferable good, till we have duly examined, whether it has a tendency to, or be inconsistent with our real happiness: and therefore till we are as much informed upon this inquiry, as the weight of the matter, and the nature of the case demands; we are, by the necessity of preferring and pursuing true happiness as our greatest good, obliged to suspend the satisfaction of our desires in particular cases.

As far as Jefferson was concerned, the British government deliberately thwarted the Americans’ pursuit of happiness by placing the thirteen colonies in a state of war, taxed them without representation, and (some today might argue improbably) encouraged the colonial slave trade as Jefferson argued in the Rough Draught. It is worth noting that Jefferson had developed many of these ideas two years earlier in a pamphlet that sealed his reputation as a stylist and even a radical. Jefferson had penned A Summary View of the Rights of British North America as policy paper when illness prevented his attendance at a convention of Virginia’s burgesses who were drafting a response of solidarity with Massachusetts after Parliament imposed the Boston Port Act. The Englishmen who had emigrated to the American colonies did so as free men with the highest hopes to improve their lot, paying for the enterprise with lives and treasure. “America was conquered, and her settlement made, and firmly established, at the expense of individuals, and not of the British public. Their own blood was spilt in acquiring lands for their settlements, their own fortunes expended in making that settlement effectual; for themselves they fought, for themselves they conquered, and for themselves alone they have right to hold.” With a lawyer’s precision, Jefferson pointed out how “his majesty has no right to land a single armed man on our shores,” how British policy had resulted in unfair taxes and stifling regulations that prevented Americans from enjoying the fruits of their own labors (“Men who had spent their lives in extending the British commerce, who had invested in that place the wealth their honest endeavors had merited, found themselves and their families thrown at once on the world for subsistence by its charities …This is administering justice with a heavy hand indeed!”). Jefferson in the Summary View complained about the closure of Boston Harbor and British opposition to colonial efforts at banning the slave trade (“…Our repeated attempts to effect this by prohibitions, and by imposing duties which might amount to a prohibition, have been hitherto defeated by his majesty’s negative: Thus preferring the immediate advantages of a few African corsairs to the lasting interests of the American states, and to the rights of human nature deeply wounded by this infamous practice.”) Jefferson’s arguments in the Summary View were hardly mainstream, but they are earlier evidence of his political thinking that Americans had the right to decide their own futures in a way that would best suit their search for political and economic opportunities, the “pursuit of happiness” he later described in the Declaration.

Finally, the Declaration makes a strong statement regarding the necessity of republican government and the right to seek change if a current form of government attempts to destroy the blessing of those rights. In the natural rights statement of the Declaration, Jefferson made it clear that the people can have any form of government they choose. However, it is abundantly evident that he and the other Founders wanted America to have a republican form of government based on the consent of the community of the political involved and firmly rooted in representation of the people’s interests. Jefferson stated that government is strongest when every man feels himself a part. The people secured these rights – government did not grant them – and a just government exercising just powers is derivative of the people and their will. No other form of government would have been “an expression of the American mind” in Jefferson’s words, and since government was to his mind a man-made device for promoting human welfare, guaranteeing self-government was the right and the duty of the American Revolution, not simply of Englishmen. It would provide the best form of government, meeting the expectations of Americans who in 1776 were obviously willing to defend their right to self-government and providing a road map for what a stable and responsible future government of the United States would be. Linking the need to self-government to a call for independence made sense as well, since Jefferson would soon argue in the next section of the Declaration that history showed Great Britain had abandoned its practice of allowing the colonies their own form of just government. As Jefferson makes the case that “a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism,” it is worth remembering Alexander Hamilton later stated in Federalist No. 9 a political philosophy regarded as a self-evident truth by the founding generation: Republican forms of government would help Americans avoid “the perpetual vibration between the extremes of tyranny and anarchy.” According to Jefferson, securing that form of government would only come as the result of the successful establishment of the United States of America and the rejection of Great Britain.
A republican form of government. Limits on governmental power. The recognition that ordinary people know more about their own pursuit of happiness than those in power. These are the ideas worth fighting for, as declared in the Declaration of Independence. They are venerable ideas deeply respected in America’s past. Do these ideas matter today? Or is even the discussion of these ideas found in the Declaration the mark of those oriented toward violence and social upheaval rather than liberty? More about those questions in Part 3.

Next: Why liberty is worth fighting for, and what “fighting for” means. 

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It Is The Words That Matter, Even If Jefferson Wrote Them

Thomas Jefferson, author of The Declaration of Independence

Thomas Jefferson, that living paradox in the pantheon called the Founding Fathers, is scrutinized in a new exhibition, “Slavery at Jefferson’s Monticello: Paradox of Liberty,” now on view at the National Museum of American History. It is the latest attempt to reconcile the obvious: How could Jefferson preach liberty and practice slavery? It is not a question easily ignored. Fulfillment of the Declaration’s promises are the only valid test that can measure whether the United States is truly a land of liberty. As the seminal American historian George Bancroft stated, the Declaration enshrined the “unchangeableness of freedom, virtue, and right” in the American political psyche and “heart of Jefferson in writing the declaration” became identified as the American political psyche. James Parton, the nation’s first professional biographer, described the formula succinctly: “If Jefferson was wrong, America is wrong. If Jefferson is right, America is right.” That is what is at stake.

Contradictions abound in the man who wrote the Declaration of Independence, the least of which is Jefferson (who penned the words “all men are created equal”) was a prominent slave owner his entire adult life. Identifying consistency in Jefferson’s philosophy regarding anything is the historian’s answer to an exercise that attempts to nail jelly to a wall, and Jefferson the slaveholder is also Jefferson the lawyer who in 1770 represented Virginia slave Samuel Howell in an unsuccessful attempt to gain the enslaved man’s freedom through a legal argument stating that under nature’s law “all men are born free.”  Jefferson the father of at least one child by his slave Sally Hemmings (a conclusion verified by modern DNA comparison testing of the descendants from both lines) is also the Jefferson the author of a attack on slavery contained in the Rough Draught of the Declaration of Independence that laid the blame for the Atlantic slave trade (one of the legs in the economic tripod of the lucrative Triangle Trade that had made Britain wealthy through mercantilism) at the feet of George III.  In words that attacked the sovereign’s claim to be a member of Christian civilization, Jefferson wrote: “He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of distant people, who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. This piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the Christian king of Great Britain.” Only two things seem clear: Jefferson believed that God granted personal liberty and freedom to all humankind, and he owned hundreds of slaves. In eyes of his critics, the author of America’s (and some would argue, the world’s) seminal statement of freedom and democracy was a slave breeder, the Declaration is a document rooted in racist duplicity, and Jefferson “must have been a demon, a hypocrite, or an enigma.” What more could critics of the Founding Period’s figures and their shortcomings ask for, particular those who label the Declaration a racist document? Jefferson failed, and America failed is often the answer.

Fortunately, the task at hand is not to find consistency in Jefferson’s political philosophy. Undoubtedly, Jefferson was an intellectual along with many other pursuits, but he was also a man of affairs who was drawn to the pragmatic and utilitarian more than to the abstract, a lawmaker who had spend most of his adult life in the worldly, concrete enterprise called politics. He was interested in methods that worked, that respected the history and tradition of English law, and that operated with efficiency and precision. He drew from multiple sources such as the Whig tradition that English history displayed an on-going struggle recover and keep liberty, the Enlightenment which taught Jefferson that rational thought and inquiry would vanquish ignorance that had been based on dogmatic authority, and the classical past that provided examples of how to deal with contemporary problems when its politicians and thinkers were read within the context of the modern world. This is where Jefferson’s consistency lay: In the sources he used and admired, sources which praised liberty and allowed men to secure it. All of this is reflected in what he wrote in the Declaration of Independence.

Equally fortunate, there is ample evidence that liberty and freedom in the United States succeeded because of what Jefferson wrote, which he considered an expression of what was communally held as basic American political truths. The tenets expressed in the natural rights statement are well-known and straightforward, but those tenets are worth examining not just to understand the elementary philosophy of government Americans were fighting for during the Revolution. Equally important, there are specific examples of how the Declaration influenced the expansion of American democracy and American freedom as time and events changed the nation, examples that manifestly demonstrate that the United States is not a failure when it comes to the expansion of human freedoms because of the moral power of that document.

That power found in the Declaration’s own words can be synopsized in the following manner:

1)      These are self-evident truths (truths that withstand any argument because of they are almost mathematically logical):

  1. All men (humankind) are created equal (political equality and equality in the realm of advancement as far as talent and work can take one in life).
  2. They are endowed by their Creator (in hindsight an ambiguous deity, yet one that would be readily recognized as either Nature’s God of the Enlightenment or Jehovah of the Christian tradition) with certain unalienable rights (rights that can never be separated or transferred from humankind by any government or governor): life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness (a trio of rights that would cover the gamut of human existence and provide the safest means for self-government and personal independence).
  3. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted (established by consent) among men, deriving their just (morally, legally, and politically sound) powers from the consent of the governed,
  4. That whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends (including the current form of government), it is the right of the people (also “unalienable”) to alter (change) or to abolish it (eliminate it), and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles (namely, consent of the governed, freedom, and liberty) and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness (the results of protecting the trio of rights – and others—mentioned in the earlier clause of the natural rights statement. Concurrent with these rights is the right to just revolution, which is validated by the right to resist tyranny).

2)      Prudence (caution in deliberating and consulting on the most suitable means to accomplish valuable purposes) dictates that long-established governments should not be cast aside light and transient (hasty and momentary) causes.

3)      But when a long train of abuses (of power and the ruled) and usurpations (of the governed’s right to government by their consent) reveals a plan to reduce them under absolute despotism a) it is their right, b) it is their duty overthrow a despotic government and “provide new Guards for their future security.”

Its logical power is even more briefly identified as a form of deductive argument by Stephen E. Lucas, professor of communication arts at the University of Wisconsin,Madison:

Major premise: When government deliberately seeks to reduce the people under absolute despotism, the people have a right, indeed a duty, to alter or abolish that form of government and to create new guards for their future security.
Minor premise: The government ofGreat Britainhas deliberately sought to reduce the American people under absolute despotism.
Conclusion: Therefore the American people have a right, indeed a duty, to abolish their present form of government and to create new guards for their future security.

Yet, for all of its cool logic and philosophical depth, this section of the Declaration achieved something so moving that we often forget its absence in the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights: It issued a basic manifesto of equal rights and political participation. The Constitution protected slavery: Witness the 3/5 “federal ratio” used to count enslaved humans for apportionment, the 20-year moratorium on banning the slave trade, the early fugitive slave clause, all drafted without mentioning the word “slave” once in the entire document. The Bill of Rights protected slaveholders in Amendment 5 because slaves were chattels, property that could not be taken without due process of law. All this had been included to compromise with the political and economic interests of the slave-owning South, among other reasons. The Declaration uncompromisingly stated what other American state papers dared not. “All men are created equal.” Those words matter, even if we cannot fully understand that enigma called Thomas Jefferson.

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Some Presidents’ Day Reflections Regarding the Importance of the Declaration of Independence


As Presidents’ Day comes our way, it is a good time reflect on the creation of a nation where the chief executive is not the locus of government power, but power is derived from the “consent of the governed.” (By the way, “Presidents’ Day” is a misnomer. The Federal government sets the third Monday of February as George Washington’s Birthday.)  American presidents come and go. However, there are basic assummptions about the Declaration of Independence that every American should know, and every American should use as the touchstone for proper government — especially American presidents.

The Declaration of Independence was a necessary and vital statement made at a time when the success of the American Revolution was doubtful and government by ordinary people was considered a novel experiment (at best).

When the Second Continental Congress issued the Declaration, it was a powerful reminder to a “candid world” that in all of European history no colony had ever successfully separated from a mother country to form an independent nation. Furthermore, the Declaration made it clear that the United States would be founded on Enlightenment principles such as good government is based on a respect of natural rights and the people have a right to alter or abolish a government that does not respect those rights. Equally important, the Declaration is based on an American concept of liberty that became the standard for nation, even though its principles were considered experimental at best by the European political class of the times. “A decent respect for the opinions of mankind” compelled the Second Continental Congress to explain what they were doing. George III and many British considered the Americans rebels and traitors, which by definition meant they were beyond the law and beyond the sovereign’s protection. The Declaration was a political manifesto, de facto declaration of war, and statement of the Americans’ right to exist as a free nation of people possessing liberties endowed by their Creator.


The Declaration of Independence was the product of a democratic process that was the broadest expression of rights and liberties in the world at the time.

Americans by the thousands debated the question of independence for months before the actual Declaration was finally issued and signed. Thomas Paine, the “firebrand of liberty,” persuaded tens of thousands of Americans with the first call for a declaration in his wildly popular tract Common Sense. Although Thomas Jefferson is the main author of the Declaration and was charged by the Continental Congress to write the “rough draught” of the document, he was one member of “The Committee of Five” comprised of congressional delegates Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Roger Sherman, and Robert Livingston. Each offered comments and exerted influence that either overtly or subtly swayed the genesis of the document. The Congress, meeting as a Committee of the Whole, debated the Declaration and edited it (including the well-known decision to strike language condemning the slave trade and slavery). When the Declaration was approved and signed by John Hancock (presiding officer of the Congress) and Charles Thomson (the secretary of the Congress), about 200 copies were printed for distribution throughout all 13 states and to the Continental Army, which was in the field fighting the British Army. In addition, it was published in newspapers and circulated as broadsides. Even with the omission of language calling for the end of slavery, the Declaration was embraced by men, women, free blacks, and slaves as the promise of a new order for the ages: a government based on the idea that ordinary people could govern themselves.

 The Declaration of Independence placed everything the Patriots held dear – their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor – in danger of utter destruction.

By signing their names to the Declaration, the delegates to the Continental Congress likely faced doom if the British captured them or prevailed in the Revolutionary War. The Declaration an was act of treason, punishable by public disgrace and execution by hanging. They were the de facto leadership of the United States, and by issuing the Declaration as an internationally circulated statement of intentions they had bluntly stated that they would pursue revolution, not reconciliation.  People declared rebels in Scotland and Ireland earlier in the century had suffered terrible fates, and there was no reason to believe any signer would fare any better. Ordinary Americans fighting for independence faced an equally grim fate. The men and women, white and black, who helped create this nation did so in the face of real danger and great cost – and that sacrifice in the name of principles embodied in the Declaration should be acknowledged, understood, and remembered.

The Declaration of Independence is a relevant document  important to the survival of our nation today.

The Declaration helps define us as the land of the free. It has been called by some “the birth notice of the nation,” and it is the first significant statement of the basic freedoms acknowledged as distinctly American. Even with the survival of slavery in the new republic, it set the standard for what the nation should become. Abraham Lincoln used its most important idea to call for a “new birth of freedom” during this nation’s most devastating war fought to end slavery. Civil rights leaders from Reconstruction through the 1960s held up the Declaration’s ideals to remind this nation of its failures in the realm of political equality and liberty. Martin Luther King Jr. used its words to remind a tormented and divided generation that the hope for America was the survival of the American system of liberty and democracy when given to all of the nation’s citizens. Women from Abigail Adams to the suffragettes laid claim to its promises, and still do. Its words remind us that the idea of being “American” is not simply based on the activity of enjoying the economic advantages of this nation’s economy, or simply recognizing the United States as a geographic reality. The words of the Declaration help define us as a unique people, and the value of those words is incalculable at a time when foreign enemies who wish to impose another world system upon our countrymen through violence and terror offer no apology for the words that define them.

The main promise of the Declaration – “that all men are created equal” – is not a racist or sexist statement. It is a promise to all people, at all times.

            There is more at stake here then the nature of the English language in the eighteenth century, although it is clear that the Founders meant “all humankind” when they used the word “men.” According to the Declaration, human beings are born equal in life and liberty and we are by nature equally free and independent. We are unequal in ways too numerous to list categorically (such as wealth, status, talents, physical attributes, and many others), but no human, class of humans, or group of humans is superior to another human, class of humans, or group of humans. This is the most important idea in the Declaration of Independence, the basis for true political equality in the United States, and the cynosure of human rights for great Americans such as the Founding Fathers and Mothers, Abraham Lincoln, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. It excludes no class or race of Americans but embraces all who are willing to acknowledge this self-evident truth.


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Another Look at Jefferson and Slavery

Monticello. A picture from my visit there in 2008.

The National Museum of African American History and Culture  and The Thomas Jefferson Foundation have collaborated in presenting a Washington, D.C., exhibit examining the complex and often contradictory life of slaves at Jefferson’s home Monticello. “Slavery at Jefferson’s Monticello: Paradox of Liberty,” opened today in the NMAAHC Gallery at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History on the National Mall. It looks at not only the lives of slaves during Jefferson’s lifetime but also the successor generations who went on to become leading figures in politics and the civil rights movement.

The New York Times story about the display raises one of the more popular and controversial moral questions surrounding Jefferson and slavery: It’s easy to call the man who wrote “all men are created equal” a hypocrite, far more difficult to prove the accusation. “What does it mean that such a man not only held slaves but also devoted considerable attention to their status, their mode of life and, yes, their profitability? What was the connection between his ideals and the blunt reality?” the story asks.  “These are not just biographical questions; they are national ones.”

I hope to see the display sometime this summer.  It looks like one of the better museum-based efforts to examine Jefferson and the world of his slaves, the world of Monticello slaves and their problematic master who was also the American Pen of Liberty.

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God, Mr. Jefferson, and the Declaration of Independence

They are among the most famous words every written in defense of individual liberty and the necessity of democratic government. The United States has used its ideas to define what American freedom should be. Nations seeking independence often used it as a model for their own statement to a candid world about why they deserved status as a sovereign nation rather than a colony or possession. Humans ranging from women and slaves in the United States to the diplomats who drafted the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights regarded its ideas as a kind of global political gospel.

Some readers probably can quote much of the following from memory:

We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, That they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed, that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these Ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or abolish it, and to institute a new Government, laying its Foundations on such Principles and organizing its Powers in such Form, as to Them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

The natural rights statement of the Declaration is Thomas Jefferson’s formula for human freedom based on simple but radical premises: All men (the inclusive term for humankind in the 18th century) are created equal, a state in which we all have equal rights to personal security, political freedom ,and the pursuit of economic opportunity. Governments secure these rights – they do not grant them, for only the Creator can give humanity what is naturally ours through creation. Humans also have a right to change or eliminate any government that does not secure those rights or fails to seek the consent of the governed. Like so many great ideas of the age, this statement has the logic of a Newtonian formula with the power of moral force.

Of course, then and now there is a sticking point, albeit for different reasons. Jefferson says we are created equal. Logically, creation indicates a creator – God. Then, traditionalists who argued for the divine right of kings would argue that Jefferson was upending The Almighty’s social order that placed monarchs at the top of the political food chain and the ruled in the fields where they belong. Today, in a world where the secularist is uncomfortable with any expression of deity in the political sphere and the multiculturalist asks “Whose god?” many say discussing God and the American Founding will pick a fight in some political and intellectual circles. Modern critics of the Declaration’s appeal to deity (specifically, the document has the phrases “nature’s God,” “the Supreme Judge of the world,” and “Divine Providence” as well as mention of a Creator) state that they are the standard utterances of Deism, a popular religious and moral movement of the times that denied the divinity of Christ and saw God as a being who set the universe in motion but did not intervene in human affairs.

Jefferson was hardly a traditional Christian. As disappointing as the facts might be to contemporary conservative evangelicals, his life is full of clear examples of how he spurned the orthodox Christianity of his family and friends in colonial Virginia. Henry Foote, author of The Religion of Thomas Jefferson, wrote that Jefferson’s “knowledge of science led him to reject all miracles, including the virgin birth and the bodily resurrection of Jesus” and that he rejected the creeds of the Anglican Church in which he was raised by the time he was a teen-aged college student. Jefferson himself wrote, “(The teachings of Jesus] have been still more disfigured by the corruptions of schismatizing followers, who have found an interest in sophisticating and perverting the simple doctrines he taught.” Jefferson’s most famous solution to this “disfigurement” was the Jefferson Bible, his compilation of the moral teachings of Christ from the New Testament with all the miracles edited out by literally snipping selected sections of Scripture with a pair of scissors.

Facts like these could cause secularists to believe that history is on their side. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Although the religious sentiments of Jefferson might not give comfort to contemporary Christians, one fact remains clear: Jefferson, as well as the Continental Congress that reviewed his draft and approved the final version, made the moral conduct of government a vital component of consent-based government for a free people. Signed by both Deists and Christians, the Declaration patently states there is only one right way to govern people. Citizens must be respected as creations, God’s natural laws regarding human dignity and worth must be respected, and any government that fails this moral test is due for a change or bound for extinction.

Those ideas are supported by Jefferson’s own words. In a letter to his good friend John Adams, he wrote, “I hold (without appeal to revelation) that when we take a view of the Universe, in its parts general or particular, it is impossible for the human mind not to perceive and feel a conviction of design, consummate skill, and indefinite power in every atom of its composition … it is impossible, I say, for the human mind not to believe that there is … a fabricator of all things.” As he wrote in the Declaration, Jefferson elsewhere described all people having rightful claims to what one owns by birth or by one’s nature as a human being. It is broadly accepted to this day that it is morally right to keep one’s life, liberty, or opportunities for happiness safe and secure, wrong to lawlessly deny or strip a person of the same. Jefferson called those rights “unalienable” – non-transferable and inseparable. Why? Only God can give those rights. Only God can take them away by death. Jefferson’s God might have been a deity that he could not believe sent a Son to Earth, but God was to Jefferson a creator who guaranteed that the sons of men would live wisely and well if they lived by the rules of right and wrong clearly seen in the universal fabric of nature. Even in Jefferson’s time, this was not a new idea. One New England preacher of the 1760s explained things this way: “The law of nature (or those rules of behavior which the Nature God has given men … fit and necessary to the welfare of mankind) is the law and will of the God of nature, which all men are obliged to obey….The law of nature, which is the Constitution of the God of nature, is universally obliging. It varies not with men’s humors or interests, but is immutable as the relations of things.” Some things may change over time, but ignore the source of just government grounded in the unalienable, created rights of humankind and you might as well also try to ignore the laws of gravity.

Denying or avoiding Mr. Jefferson’s appeal to God is not only silly political correctness. It is a denial of a self-evident truth about the basis of American freedom. Whether one chooses atheism or religion, the basis of rights in the United States should perturb no one. We are a people who can possess life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness because millions of this nation’s citizens cling to the Declaration’s promises; millions continue to use it as the measure of whether the United States lives up to its promises. Those promises were given as our possession in the same way we were given individual characteristics and attributes as individuals, and those promises have done nothing but good. Deny Mr. Jefferson’s God of Creation and we are no longer a people defined by the Declaration of Independence but by whatever the times or the loudest voice say is best. That arbitrary source for a definition of human rights only goes by another name – tyranny. Like Thomas Jefferson, we would do well to remember not only what we are endowed with, but why understanding the source of our rights is the only thing that can truly preserve life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.


Filed under History of the Declaration of Independence

Feuding Founders

Ron Chernow, whose award-winning biography of Alexander Hamilton reinvigorated interest in the most economically savvy

Ron Chernow

Founding Father, penned an excellent essay about political venom during the early years of the republic for the Weekend Journal edition of The Wall Street Journal. He points out that some founders like George Washington feared partisanship and tried to transcend its naturally divisive power, but most were “fiery men who expressed their beliefs with unusual vehemence.”  Chernow states something that students of American political history have always known — and sometimes loathed — for decades: Partisan rancor was there at the beginning, partisan rancor is present in today’s political dialogue, and partisan rancor shows no signs of abating anytime soon.  The articles does a fine job of explaining the unpleasant results of dissent during the early years of the United States (including press attacks against none other than Washington) that eventually led to the first president’s furious rebukes against embyonic party spirit.

No one likes discussions peppered with nasty accusations and heated language.  However, Chernow points out that Washington originally embraced dissent within his cabinet even when it was obvious that Hamilton and his arch-enemy Thomas Jefferson were generating real political factions. That is (of course) reflective of democracy’s best attribute, the freedom to disagree.  It is also the natural result of a nation then and now based on the political and economic visions of so many men and women who hold competing interests. No wonder the words “United States” are written in bold capitals in the original Declaration. Unity is often a rare thing in this nation, though its absence because of political disagreements is not always a tragedy. Then and now, a universe of voices questioning, condemning, and even attacking ideas and leaders is preferable to the quiet orderliness found under repressive governments. The contemporary establishment of bloggers, cable news networks, niche political publications, and Web sites dedicated to political activism took the same methods and ideas of the Founding Generation and made them available to millions more people than they could ever dream of.  That’s why I am always suspicious of individuals who first complain that contemporary political speech is too unruly, then suggest that it should be “restrained” or “civilized” so it will not offend.

No doubt, disunity is always a source of verbal fireworks, and the Founders were often no different than anyone today who is hammering out the fate of the United States. As always, Chernow is up to the task of revealing the humanity of past leaders who are often portrayed as philosopher-kings who never played the game called “politics.”

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Filed under Scholarship and Historians