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The Real Jefferson

Mises Daily: Thursday, May 23, 2002 by

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Most people believe that they know something about Thomas Jefferson’s political thought. If the  object of study has been Jefferson’s own writings, this may be true. If, however, people read only the usual accounts of Jefferson’s that are made available to students, they are likely to be burdened with some serious misunderstandings.

A typical account is Richard Matthews’s The Radical Politics of Thomas Jefferson. This book espouses the view that Jefferson was not a Lockean, but a proto-socialist ready to expropriate the rich in order to give to the poor, on grounds that property rights are purely conventional and a gracious gift of society. 

Matthews’s view is typical of the material available in university bookstores. Even a visit to D.C.’s Jefferson Memorial (dedicated in 1943) would lead you to believe that Jefferson’s main concern was the promotion of public schooling.

The problem is that Jefferson’s vast writings do not support this now-conventional wisdom. In contrast, Jefferson’s writings show that:

1. He was a natural-rights theorist of the Lockean persuasion. In his political outlook he somewhat radicalized Locke’s doctrine, but he never really deviated from it.

2. He believed that private property is a natural right, and that the only proper function of government is to protect the individual’s enjoyment of natural rights. 

3. The Kentucky Resolutions were central to Jeffersonian thought; the states' rights doctrine he deployed here was even more important to his later thought than his lifelong dedication to natural rights. 

Jefferson as a Lockean

It’s not hard to show that Jefferson was a Lockean. Let’s read the first sentences of the Declaration of Independence as Jefferson drafted them, probably the most famous words in a political document ever written.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal and independent, that from that equal creation they derive rights inherent and inalienable, among which are the preservation of life, & liberty, & the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these ends, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed; that whenever any form of government shall become destructive of these ends, it is the rights of the people to alter or to abolish it, & to institute new government laying it’s foundation on such principles and organizing it’s powers in such forms, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness

Now, that seems pretty Lockean, doesn’t it? Only a student who has not done his homework or a scholar of great erudition can fail to recognize the mark of John Locke in these words.

But of course the case of a Lockean Jefferson cannot rest on a single document. Jefferson quotes John Locke only half a dozen times in his writings. In Jefferson's view, Locke, Bacon, and Newton "were the greatest men that ever lived without any exception." In a letter of 1790, Jefferson stated: "Locke’s little book on Government, is perfect as far as it goes."

According to Jefferson, it was John Locke who had a most relevant role in shaping the "harmonizing sentiments" of the American Revolution. He thought the Declaration to be no original document, but merely an outline of the American sentiments of 1776.

In fact, Richard Henry Lee accused Jefferson of plagiarism. According to the man who signed the first motion for independence in June 1776, the Declaration was copied from John Locke’s Second Treatise. The Virginian had no reason to dispute that allegation. In fact, Jefferson considered this to be the document's real strength:

The object of the Declaration of Independence … was … not to find out new principles, or new arguments, never before thought of, not merely to say things which had never been said before; but to place before mankind the common sense of the subject … Neither aiming at originality of principle or sentiment, nor yet copied from any particular and previous writing, it was intended to be an expression of the American mind ... 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.

At the end of his life, Jefferson again was ready to put the author of the Two Treatises in the American Olympus on liberty and government:

as to the general principles of liberty and the rights of man, in nature and in society, the doctrines of Locke … and of Sidney … may be considered as those generally approved by our fellow citizens of this, and the United States.

Natural Property Rights

Some authors argue that, even if Jefferson was indeed a Lockean, he did not believe in the natural right of property. He thought that property was a conventional right, to be taken away or granted to people by majorities and so on. Now, what kind of Lockean would believe this is hard to say, but that is how the story is told.

Vernon Parrington, who wrote the classic treatise on American thought for the generation that came of age between the two World Wars, asserted that Jefferson believed human rights should trump property rights. The Declaration of Independence, to Parrington, was a "classical statement of French humanitarian democracy." In holding this view, Parrington agrees with Abraham Lincoln, who wrote in 1859 that Jeffersonians must have "a superior devotion to the personal rights of men, holding the rights of property to be secondary only and greatly inferior."

Indeed, the idea of a Jeffersonian hostility to property rights--or, more accurately, to the natural foundation of property rights--is quite common in the literature But the claim is based upon very scanty evidence, or even no evidence at all.

Why, then, did Jefferson substitute the phrase "the pursuit of happiness" in the Declaration for Locke’s "property"? Parrington claims that this substitution "marks a complete break with the Whiggish doctrine of property rights that Locke had bequeathed to the English middle class, and the substitution of a broader sociological conception."

Nonsense. The terms "life and property," "liberty, life, and property," and "liberty and property" are scattered throughout Jefferson’s writings. These terms are used in a context that is perfectly consistent with the entire classical liberal tradition.

A few examples will suffice to prove this point.

  • In 1775, writing one of his first official documents, Jefferson stated that it was the colonists’ right "to protect from every hostile hands our lives & our properties." Half a century later, in 1825, we find in the last official document he wrote for the Virginia Assembly the idea that "man is capable of living in society, governing itself by laws self-imposed, and securing to its members the enjoyment of life, liberty, property, and peace."
  • In between, we find a series of allusions to the natural rights of the classical liberal tradition that should leave no doubt in an honest historian about Jefferson’s inclinations. In 1809, he declared his satisfaction about the relative success of the American experiment of self-government, and added: "in no portion of the earth [are] … life, liberty, and property so securely held."
  • His private correspondence is rich with similar references. In 1823, talking about the various state constitutions, he asserted that, although very different, "there are certain principles in which all agree, and which all cherish as vitally essential to the protection of life, liberty, property, and the safety of the citizen."
  • The fact is that the pursuit of happiness appears to be so general as to include the right to acquire and dispose of property as an individual saw fit. Various contemporary documents draw together property and happiness in a perfectly Lockean fashion. The Virginia Declaration of Rights, of June 1776, written by George Mason (1725-1792) and probably read by Jefferson prior to the drafting of the Declaration, comes immediately to mind.
  • But one should also consider the Pennsylvania Constitution, declaring "that all men are born equally free and independent, and have certain natural, inherent, and inalienable rights, amongst which are, the enjoying and defending of life and liberty, acquiring, possessing and protecting property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety." In a similar manner, the first New Hampshire Constitution stated that "acquiring, possessing and protecting property--and in a word ... seeking and obtaining happiness" were among the natural rights of men.

Despite the gallons of ink wasted on the controversy, it does not seem possible to construe an opposition between property and happiness in revolutionary American rhetoric. Life, Liberty, Property, Security, and Happiness are the most recurrent terms in the American discourse on natural rights. Looking for a powerful trio, it is reasonable to believe that Jefferson preferred happiness to property mainly because of style (it was less legalistic and conveyed the same idea).

States’ rights

It is astonishing that Jeffersonian scholars have paid so little attention to the states'-rights aspect of Jefferson’s thought. If one reads the Kentucky Resolutions of 1798, Jefferson appears to be the father of the Confederate States of America much more that of the United States. Here, Jefferson sought to provide a constitutional interpretation that would at least in principle prevent the union from "consolidating." He wanted to keep a system of loose federalism very similar to the one embodied in the Articles of Confederation.

Jefferson took advantage of the first opportunity in which the federalists openly disregarded the Constitution to address problems concerning the relationship between the federal government and the states, and his interpretation placed further limitations to federal power on the grounds that the U.S. were established as a republic based on states’ as well as individual rights.

The occasion was the approval of two acts that posed a serious threat to the system of American liberties. The Alien and Sedition Laws were approved in 1798 (under this law, you could be sent to prison for criticizing the president). The Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions, drawn respectively by Madison and Jefferson, were the opposition answer to those laws.

For the first time in American history, Jefferson outlined the political and juridical doctrine of the "State rights school" that became the standard way of viewing relations between States and Nation in the Southern states during the 19th century, up to the end of the War for Southern Independence.

Revived and perfected by John C. Calhoun, this doctrine became the heart of the controversy between the two sections of the country. Jefferson asserted that the States had created a federal government as a simple agent, subordinate to them, for limited and well-defined functions, and that the federal government did not have any right to expand its own authority.

Each individual State, as far as the controversies regarding the Constitution were concerned, had the right to determine when the compact had been breached, and what measures were most appropriate to restore the violated order and redress the wrong. Thus, it was a right (explicitly called by Jefferson "natural," therefore sacred) of each State to pronounce the illegitimacy of an act of Congress contrary to the constitutional compact.

Jefferson’s account of the nature of the Union--a voluntary contract among free and independent States in order to establish a common caretaker for few and enumerated things--contains a great deal of common sense. In a nutshell, the idea behind the Resolutions is as follows: the States are the ultimate judges of the constitutionality of federal legislation. This requires a rigorously voluntary framework.

But the Supreme Court, a branch of the federal government, at the time was already becoming what it is now, that is to say the arbiter of conflicts between the States and the federal government. In this case, the constitutional framework is threatened, since the federal government, not the Constitution, becomes the judge of its own expansion. More generally, if the States are expected to obey any federal law, regardless of whether the act had been issued according to the Constitution, only lip service is paid to the system of guarantees known as "federalism."

Despite the ratification of the federal Constitution, Jefferson believed that vis-à-vis each other, the States remained like individuals in the "state of nature." To characterize the true nature of the American union, for Jefferson, it was sufficient to transpose the Lockean natural rights model from individuals to the States. He never appealed to the theory of sovereignty (a term that does not even appear in his original draft of the Resolutions) to claim that the States are "free and independent": their liberty and independence lie in the nature of the bond in which they find themselves, and not in the somewhat metaphysical property of being "original political communities."

Despite the Constitution, the States retain all of their natural rights with respect to one another--exactly like individuals in a "state of nature." Jefferson’s appeal to nullification was a peculiar application of the theory of natural rights: a "state’s natural right," the right of nullification, was entirely within the realm of the federal compact, and was by no means an extra-constitutional remedy. In Jefferson’s opinion, such a right derived entirely from the nature of the American union, as it had been historically constructed.

Jefferson understood better than anybody else in his generation that Congress was the real heir to the king and that the concentration of powers in the federal center would have brought about "a government of discretion." To this ultimate evil he preferred secession, as he wrote again and again. So, yes, Jefferson’s goal was the preservation of men’s natural rights, but he believed that the best way to reach that was through a strict territorial division of power.

Of course there were many inconsistencies in Jefferson’s writings, and his behavior in politics often contradicted his stated political philosophy. That said, it remains indisputably true that Jefferson was a Lockean who believed in the natural right of property and in the rights of the states as independent political entities to determine their own destinies. That so many scholars are unwilling to face these truths reflects, not contrary evidence in Jefferson’s writing, but rather the bias and wishful thinking of the academic class.


Marco Bassani, scholar in residence at the Mises Institute and author of the introduction to the Italian edition of Rothbard’s Ethics of Liberty, teaches political thought at the University of Milan. He has just completed a treatise on Jefferson’s political thought to be published this year in Italian. Send him MAIL.