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Thomas Jefferson & the Declaration of Independence

2,258 words


Thomas Jefferson

The first sentence of Preamble to the Declaration of Independence reads: “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 Declaration of Independence is not a legal document or even a formal declaration of independence. By the time of its adoption, twelve of the thirteen colonies had already declared independence with the passage of the Lee Resolution. 

Nonetheless, the Declaration is invoked as if it were holy writ. It is seen as a sacred monument of egalitarian idealism to which all politics ought to aspire, endowing America with a messianic destiny to bring the light of freedom and equality to the world. An entire cultural myth has arisen around the Declaration: that America was, as Lincoln famously intoned in his Gettysburg Address, founded upon “the proposition that all men are created equal.” Pseudo-patriotic neoconservatives are the most enthusiastic champions of this narrative, but center-Left politicians routinely regurgitate it as well. Obama opened his 2013 inaugural address by quoting the Declaration and reiterating the view that America was founded upon the principle of “equality.”[1] This view is so ingrained in mainstream American political discourse that even some white nationalists believe it. But it was taken for granted at the time of the founding that America was, in the words of Stephen Douglas (echoing the Preamble to the Constitution), “made by white men for the benefit of white men and their posterity forever.”[2]

“All Men Are Created Equal”

Jefferson was an egalitarian only insofar as he believed that all men possess an innate moral sense and are thus capable of self-rule. He saw conscience as a general attribute of man, akin to legs or arms (i.e., that a small minority are born without a conscience, as some are without limbs, does not alter this fact).[3] He writes in a letter dated 1787: “State a moral case to a ploughman and a professor. The former will decide it as well and often better than the latter, because he has not been led astray by artificial rules.”[4]

The pronouncement that “all men are created equal” was also a reaction to the social hierarchies of the Old World. Jefferson strongly opposed hereditary aristocracy and monarchy. But he was was far from a modern liberal democrat. He speaks of a “natural aristocracy” in a letter to John Adams:

The natural aristocracy I consider as the most precious gift of nature, for the instruction, the trusts and government of society. And indeed, it would have been inconsistent in creation to have formed men for the social state, and not to have provided virtue and wisdom enough to manage the concerns of society. May we not even say that that form of government is the best which provides most effectually for a pure selection of these natural aristoi into the offices of government?[5]

Of course, this natural elite would be expected to act in the interests of the people and would ultimately be answerable to the people at large.

Modern Leftists often downplay (or outright deny) the legitimacy of IQ tests, but it is worth noting that among the greatest proponents of intelligence testing in the 1920s and 30s were progressives who saw it as a means of identifying gifted youth from poorer backgrounds. Jefferson sought to do the same with his proposed plan for Virginia’s public school system, which was designed with the express purpose of sifting out the brightest children from the general population. Education would be divided into three stages: primary school, grammar school, and university. All children would be entitled to three years of free primary education. Virginia would be divided into small districts, each of which would house a primary school. An official would visit Virginia’s primary schools annually and select the brightest student from each to advance to grammar school. Poor but bright students would have their education paid for by the state. After one or two years, one student from each of the twenty grammar schools would be selected to advance further: “By this means twenty of the best geniuses will be raked from the rubbish annually, and be instructed, at the public expense, so far as the grammar schools go.”[6] After six years, half of these students were selected to attend university. This plan was never implemented, but it attests to the difference between Jefferson’s understanding of egalitarianism and modern liberal egalitarianism. The latter is best exemplified by the recent push for New York’s specialized high schools to abandon their strictly meritocratic admissions process in the name of “diversity.”

“All men are created equal” has often been cited in defense of racial egalitarianism, but it is clear that this was not Jefferson’s intention. He remarks in Notes on the State of Virginia:

I advance it therefore as a suspicion only, that the blacks, whether originally a distinct race, or made distinct by time and circumstances, are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind. It is not against experience to suppose that different species of the same genus, or varieties of the same species, may possess different qualifications. Will not a lover of natural history then, one who views the gradations in all the races of animals with the eye of philosophy, excuse an effort to keep those in the department of man as distinct as Nature has formed them?[7]

Because of these differences, Jefferson believed that the races could not cohabitate harmoniously and that racial separation was necessary, in the same manner that the conflict between America and Britain could only be resolved through separation. His autobiography contains the following quote, the first sentence of which is inscribed upon the interior of the Jefferson Memorial, with the rest curiously omitted:

Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than that these people are to be free. Nor is it less certain that the two races, equally free, cannot live in the same government. Nature, habit, opinion has drawn indelible lines of distinction between them. It is still in our power to direct the process of emancipation and deportation peaceably and in such slow degree as that the evil will wear off insensibly, and their place be pari passu filled up by free white laborers.[8]

Ironically, it was precisely Jefferson’s belief that “all men are created equal” that undergirded his argument for racial separation. Jefferson believed that moral sense lay at the foundation of politics; if all men possess moral sense, then all are capable of self-rule. He maintained that blacks were equal to others in moral sense, claiming that their propensity for thievery was an adaptation to their circumstance rather than something innate (popular opinion at the time was that blacks were inherently morally defective). It was for this reason that Jefferson argued that blacks were capable of–even entitled to–self-governance. If anything, his estimation of them may have been too charitable. But perhaps this argument for separation is one to which some racial egalitarians would be amenable (“racial integrationists are the real racists!”).

Many wonder how Jefferson was able to reconcile his anti-slavery stance and his claim that “all men are created equal” with his personal ownership of slaves. The main reason why Jefferson did not free his slaves, in spite of his steadfast opposition to slavery, was that he believed that slaves should not be freed until mass deportation became foreseeable, ensuring that slaves would be rounded up and deported immediately following their emancipation. He was aware of the long-term consequences of letting blacks loose upon white society. In drafting slave laws for Virginia, he proposed that freed slaves must leave the Virginian Commonwealth within a year of being freed or else be regarded as an outlaw, that a white woman bearing a child to a black man must also leave within the same period, and that freedmen entering the Commonwealth could be killed at whim.[9] (These measures were deemed excessively harsh and were never passed.)

“Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness”

The scholarly consensus regarding the Declaration is that, philosophically, it is purely Lockean. Jefferson was indeed influenced by Locke, and there are a handful of textual parallels between the Declaration and Locke’s writings. But often overlooked is the fact that Jefferson was also strongly influenced by Scottish Enlightenment philosophers, including Francis Hutcheson, Adam Smith, Thomas Reid, and Lord Kames. This is the argument put forth by Garry Wills in Inventing America. Wills may overstate his case, but his book poses a worthy challenge to the prevailing interpretation of the Declaration.

Little is known about Jefferson’s formative intellectual influences. All of his papers and books were tragically destroyed in a fire in 1770. In recreating his library, however, Jefferson drafted a list indicating the names of some of the books that were lost, and a number of works by Scottish thinkers are mentioned.[10] Jefferson’s professor at the College of William and Mary was a Scotsman, William Small, who had a great influence on Jefferson and would have introduced him to Scottish Enlightenment thought in his lectures on ethics. The influence of Scottish Enlightenment thinkers, Hutcheson in particular, also extended to colonial America at large. The students of Francis Alison, a former student of Hutcheson and a professor at the College of Philadelphia, included five future signers of the Declaration, for example.[11]

Scottish Enlightenment philosophers held much in common with Locke, but where Locke emphasized individual rights, they tended to emphasize the communal nature of man and the importance of common-sense morality. It was from Scottish Enlightenment thought that Jefferson drew his understanding of moral sense.

The parallel between “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” and Locke’s “life, liberty, and estate” has often been remarked on. Despite the similarity, Jefferson’s omission of any mention of property is significant; property was central to Locke’s political philosophy, and “life, liberty and estate” are all categorized by him as such. Wills writes:

Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau, despite their various differences, all assume an original “sovereignty” over oneself. But this approach made no sense to the Scottish school or politics and economics . . . As we have seen, Jefferson rejected the idea of contract with oneself as nonsense: “To ourselves, in strict language, we can owe no duties, obligation requiring also two parties.”[12]

The phrase “pursuit of happiness” is often offered as a defence of the “American dream” and is equated with the pursuit of financial success, or even with libertine individualism. But this strays far from Jefferson’s conception of it. The notion of “happiness” here could be compared to the ancient Greek concept of eudaimonia, “the good,” which Aristotle defines as the continual exercise of virtue and reason. Jefferson similarly describes virtue as “the foundation of happiness” in a letter in which he discusses Epicureanism (Aristotle went further, emphasizing the necessity of active self-actualization, but the principle here is similar).[13] For both Jefferson and the Greeks, the pursuit of virtue is inherently political, communal life being a necessary condition for self-actualization and growth in virtue.

“Happiness” was also conceived as general national well-being, as in François-Jean de Chastellux’s “Essay on Public Happiness [félicité].” Jefferson read this book and was influenced by it, particularly by the author’s view that high population density would increase national happiness. Jefferson drew up charts forecasting Virginia’s population growth in order to determine when desirable population levels would be reached and calculated that desirable numbers would be achieved either in about 82 years or, through admitting immigrants and thus speeding up the process, about 55 years.[14] Faced with the question of which option would most contribute to public happiness, Jefferson decided against admitting immigrants, fearing that excessive immigration would render the state a “heterogeneous, incoherent, distracted mass.”[15] Like Aristotle, he identified homogeneity as a prerequisite for public happiness: “It is for the happiness of those united in society to harmonize as much as possible in matters which they must of necessity transact together.”[16] (It should be noted that Jefferson did not oppose European immigration in itself, insofar as immigrants assimilated to American life and were not admitted in large quantities at once. Non-white immigration was far rarer and not often discussed, but he seems to have opposed it categorically.)[17]

* * *

Public opinion of Jefferson has shifted over the past few decades. More recent assessments of Jefferson have generally castigated him as a racist bigot. The state of American politics is such that the militant Leftists who want to tear down statues of Jefferson are less deluded than Jefferson’s more moderate admirers. The far-Left’s hostility toward the Founding Fathers and American heritage in general is a boon to white nationalists in this regard and is already having the inadvertent effect of steering patriotic white Americans in the direction of overt racial identity politics. It would be foolish not to seize upon this historical moment by invoking American patriotism in defence of white nationalism and debunking the myth that America was founded upon the principles of racial egalitarianism and hyper-individualism.


  1. https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-press-office/2013/01/21/inaugural-address-president-barack-obama [2]
  2. The Lincoln-Douglas Debates, ed. Edwin Erle Sparks (Dansville, N.Y.: F. A. Owen Publishing Co., 1918), 26.
  3. Garry Wills, Inventing America: Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1978), 246.
  4. Ibid., 246.
  5. Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, October 28, 1813.
  6. Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia (Richmond: J. W. Randolph, 1853), 157.
  7. Ibid., 155.
  8. An Autobiography of Thomas Jefferson (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1914), 77.
  9. Wills, 367.
  10. Ibid., 214.
  11. Ibid., 216.
  12. Ibid., 263.
  13. Thomas Jefferson to William Short, October 31, 1819. (full letter: https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/98-01-02-0850 [3])
  14. Wills, 201-202.
  15. Notes on the State of Virginia, 93.
  16. Ibid., 93.
  17. See Thomas Jefferson to George Washington, June 20, 1791.