Thomas Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence: Pondering an Intent

Thomas Jefferson (TJ) was the principal author of the Declaration of Independence,[i] the founding document that announced our separation from Great Britain. The document consists of three major sections: the preamble, a list of grievances against King George III, and the statement of independence followed by the signatures of the delegates supporting the withdrawal from the British Empire.  Of these major sections, perhaps the most significant is the preamble, which introduces the concept of natural rights, an idea borrowed primarily from the 17th century English political theorist, John Locke (b.1632-d.1704).[ii]

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In his understanding of natural rights, it was Locke’s contention that all human beings have God-given rights to life, liberty, and estate, the latter essentially ‘property.’  To Locke, property consisted of land, home, and other possessions, but property also referred to a right to one’s very being. In the American political experience, the Lockean concept of ‘property’ was further expanded by James Madison, to include property as opinions, speech, values, and religious beliefs, etc.[iii]




While crafting the drafts of the Declaration of Independence, TJ’s words echoed John Locke:

We hold these truths to be sacred & undeniable; that all men are created equal & independent [sic], that from that equal creation they derive rights inherent & inalienable, among which are the preservation of life, & liberty, & the pursuit of happiness […][iv]

But take note of what TJ did!  Rather than citing life, liberty, and estate (property)—as Locke wrote originally—TJ substituted “pursuit of happiness” for ‘property.’

We may never know for sure why TJ made that substitution.  Perhaps one of his private letters holds a partial key to understanding. In an 1825 letter to Henry Lee, TJ described the ideas that went into the Declaration of Independence:

[…] it was intended to be an expression of the american [sic] mind, and to give to that expression the proper tone and spirit called for by the occasion. all it’s [sic] authority rests then on the harmonising [sic] sentiments of the day, whether expressed […] in letters, printed essays or in the elementary books of public right, as Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney [sic] Etc […][v] [vi]

Thus, since TJ drew upon not just Locke but the collective wisdom of the ages, perhaps he had in mind Aristotle’s understanding of happiness as eudaimonia, essentially moral, virtuous, and intellectual flourishing to achieve the ultimate good.[vii] As a self-avowed follower of Epicurus (b. 341 BC-d. 270 BC), TJ may have understood happiness also as involving avoidance of pain.[viii] [ix] But there is perhaps another, deeper and much more subtle possible explanation, one that certainly does not obviate any influences of Aristotle, Epicurus, and others. 

TJ may have had in mind ultimately the institution of slavery.

Again, consider John Locke. Had the more Lockean term, ‘property,’ been used in the Declaration, then an argument possibly could have been advanced that slavery was a fundamental property right—a natural right coming from God. Moreover, unfortunately enslaved persons were looked upon as chattel property in TJ’s time, further making that argument a possibility, if not an inevitability. Yet, by using instead the phrase, pursuit of happiness while applying it to all, that argument could no longer be made as easily. A seminal ideal of government had been set. With the Declaration, all people were now acknowledged to have a God-given right to pursue the ultimate good (happiness), growing morally, virtuously, and intellectually in the process, while avoiding extreme, self-serving pleasures that often lead to pain (spiritual and physical). All Declaration signers were at least tacitly acknowledging that to be so, wittingly or otherwise.    

Another consideration that seems to support this possible TJ intent lies with what he wrote specifically about the institution of slavery in the draft[x] Declaration. He formally introduced these passages that were later eliminated by Congressional consent, primarily for political expediency:[xi] 

he [King George III] has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating it’s [sic] most sacred rights of life & liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & 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. determined to keep open a market where MEN should be bought & sold […][xii]

Many Americans are probably unaware of those original Jefferson words in the Declaration. Thus, TJ not only acknowledged that enslaved persons from sub-Saharan Africa were human beings, but they also were men (generic) endowed with the same natural rights as anyone else.  King George III had denied them those rights (life, liberty, etc.), reasoned Jefferson. 

What TJ may have done then was cleverly set the stage for the eventual final elimination of an unjust, inhuman, and tragic practice—the institution of slavery.[xiii]  Still, he remains an object of derision and opprobrium in the minds of many.

In our so-called post-modern era, where deconstructionism apparently has become a favorite analytical tool and method of inquiry for so many scholars, TJ is often portrayed as a kind of hypocritical person, perceiving liberty as something limited to privileged, white male landed gentry, and the like. Yet the historical evidence arguably points to a much different Thomas Jefferson, a person not only far ahead of his time, but a Framer that understood clearly that liberty applies to all persons, in all places and in all times, to which the laws of nature and of nature’s god entitle them. 

“The God who gave us life gave us liberty […]”—Thomas Jefferson[xiv]

Dave Dietrich

[i] Benjamin Franklin (Pennsylvania), John Adams (Massachusetts), Roger Sherman (Connecticut), and Robert Livingston (New York) were the other authors.

[ii] John Locke, Two Treatises of Government (London: Amen-Corner Publisher) 1690, written in 1689. Note: Image of John Locke is public domain.

[iii] James Madison, Property, 29 March 1792

[iv] This is Professor Julian Boyd's reconstruction of Thomas Jefferson's "original Rough draught" of the Declaration of Independence before it was revised by the other members of the Committee of Five and by Congress. From: The Papers of Thomas Jefferson. Vol. 1, 1760-1776. Ed. Julian P. Boyd. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1950, pp 243-247) from https://www.loc.gov/exhibits/declara/ruffdrft.html

[v] TJ to Henry Lee, 8 May 1825

[vi] Aristotle (b.384 BC- d.322 BC), Marcus Tullius Cicero (b.106 BC-d.43 BC), and Algernon Sydney (b.1623-d.1683)

[vii] See also Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics.

[viii] Epicurus taught that the highest pleasure was derived from intellectual pursuits while avoiding extreme pleasures that often lead to pain (spiritual and physical).

[ix] TJ consider himself to be an Epicurean.  See TJ’s letter to William Short, dated 31 October 1819.

[x] In a letter to James Madison, TJ claimed Franklin and Adams made changes to the final draft presented to Congress, but those changes were limited to a few incidental alterations.  See TJ’s letter to James Madison, 1823.

[xi] Delegates from certain colonies, such as South Carolina and Georgia, refused to sign the document unless all references to slavery were taken out.

[xii] The Papers of Thomas Jefferson (Princeton University Press) 1950, pp. 423-428, from Jefferson's "original Rough Draught" from The Declaration of Independence

[xiii] Abraham Lincoln seems to have understood what TJ had done.  In a letter to Henry L. Pierce, dated 6 April 1859, Lincoln wrote, “All honor to Jefferson--to the man who, in the concrete pressure of a struggle for national independence by a single people, had the coolness, forecast, and capacity to introduce into a merely revolutionary document, an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times, and so to embalm it there, that to-day, and in all coming days, it shall be a rebuke and a stumbling-block to the very harbingers of re-appearing tyranny and oppression.”

[xiv] TJ, A Summary View of the Rights of British America, May 1774