By: Tony Williams, WJMI Program Director
Thomas Jefferson is often described as “sphinx-like” or “enigmatic” because of the difficulty in grappling with the man, his inner life, his ideas, his presidency, and his legacy. The difficulties in assessing Jefferson are no less true in his political philosophy. There seemed to be some central tenets to Jefferson’s political thought but also some changes that were at times startling.
Perhaps a good starting point for this discussion is to note that Jefferson seemed to have a couple of core political beliefs. I will discuss others in future essays, but let us start with Jefferson as a man of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment. Jefferson believed in a Newtonian universe constructed in natural laws, both physical and moral, which were knowable by human reason. He believed in a Creator and a natural order that endowed humans with rights built into the fabric of their natures which were inviolable by other individuals, civil society, or government. He was a student of the great British political philosophers, Locke and Sidney, as well as other political thinkers in Europe and ancient Greece and Rome. Consequently, one of the defining characteristics of Jefferson’s political philosophy was that he was a lifelong advocate of the universal rights of man.
Jefferson’s advocacy for the rights of man was most evident in the 1770s as the Americans declared their rights and fought against British tyranny. In 1774, Jefferson wrote a Summary of the Rights of British America, in which he stated, that rights and liberties were “derived from the laws of nature, and not as the gift of their chief magistrate.” In other words, rights come from nature and nature’s God, not the government. Therefore, they cannot be taken away by government. He also averred that, “The God who gave us life gave us liberty at the same time; the hand of force may destroy, but cannot disjoin them.” A government that destroyed those rights was tyrannical.
In 1776, Jefferson, with some edits by Congress, wrote the quintessential statement of the rights of mankind that all have equally in their natures in the Declaration of Independence: “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.” The purpose of republican government, which is rooted in the consent of the governed, is to protect those natural rights. “That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” And, the people can and must overthrow a government that is destructive of those ends after a long train of abuses.
Jefferson continued to stand firm in the rights of man in the coming decades. In 1787, he witnessed the creation of the new Constitution from afar in Paris. In a brilliant correspondence with his friend, James Madison, about the Constitution and its ratification, one of Jefferson’s most important complaints about the Constitution was that it did not provide a written Bill of Rights. “Let me add that a bill of rights is what the people are entitled to against every government on earth, general or particular, & what no just government should refuse, or rest on inferences,” he informed his equivocating friend who thought it unnecessary.
When Jefferson later stated to Henry Lee that the natural law and natural right principles of the Declaration of Independence were based upon the “elementary books of public right, as Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney, &c.,” he was appealing to those classical and modern thinkers who believed in natural law and self-government. He might have added several Christian philosophers from St. Thomas Aquinas to reformers of the Protestant Reformation to the clergy of the American Revolution.
As Jefferson stated in the same letter, he had not tried to “find out new principles, or new arguments, never before thought of,” but rather to “place before mankind the common sense of the subject.”
He dedicated a lifetime of public service to those reasonable and enlightened, natural rights principles.
Tony Williams is the Program Director for the Washington-Jefferson-Madison Institute and the author of America’s Beginnings: The Dramatic Events that Shaped a Nation’s Character and a collection of primary sources for the upcoming WJMI Thomas Jefferson roundtable discussion.