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Jefferson, Locke, and the Declaration of Independence

By: Robert Curry
March 17, 2017

"The very first sentence of the of the actual Declaration roundly states that certain truths are—crucial words—self-evident. This style—terse and pungent, yet fringed with elegance—allied the plain language of Thomas Paine to the loftier expositions of John Locke..."

Christopher Hitchens, Thomas Jefferson

lthough Christopher Hitchens was often cheerfully iconoclastic, his 2005 biography of Thomas Jefferson affirmed the scholarly and popular consensus: the Declaration of Independence is based on John Locke’s ideas.

But is it? Locke’s definition of “self-evident” would disallow the use of those “crucial words” in the Declaration. For Locke, a self-evident truth is a narrowly definitional proposition. In An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690) Locke offers examples:

  • “a man is a man”
  • “whatsoever is white is white”
  • “a man is not a horse”
  • “red is not blue.”

The problem is that the Declaration’s self-evident truths do not conform to Locke’s definition: “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 …”

Locke’s “self-evident” is not the same as the Declaration’s “self-evident.” “A man is a man” has a formal structure, “A=A,” that “all men are created equal” does not. In addition, all “A=A” propositions are uncontroversial by virtue of being irrefutable, while the Declaration’s claim that all men are created equal was, in a world where monarchs and aristocrats held political power by birthright, a political provocation.

Is the Declaration’s claim about equality merely an opinion? Or can we make sense of it as self-evident? Lincoln called it “an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times.” The political import of that abstract, universal truth was explicated by Harry V. Jaffa in A New Birth of Freedom (2000):

That all men are created equal meant, at the very least, that it is a fact open to observation by anyone at any time that whatever the conventions of any society, human beings are not distinguished from each other by nature in the way that the rider is distinguished from his horse. The subjection of the horse to the rider is according to nature… Nature has made no such distinction between man and man.

The rule of some men over others, ubiquitous throughout human history, cannot arise from the nature of the ruler or the ruled, but only and necessarily from some human arrangement. As Jefferson wrote in 1826, two weeks before his death, which fell on the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, “All eyes are open to or opening to … the palpable truth that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God.”

Jaffa interpreted Jefferson’s famous words:

The queen bee is marked out by nature for her function in the hive. Human queens (or kings) are not so marked. Their rule is conventional, not natural…. These are facts accessible to everyone. They are truths that are self-evident.

To my knowledge, none of the signers, many of whom knew Locke’s writings as well as Jefferson did, objected that the use of “self-evident” in the Declaration was a violation of Lockean thinking. And, over the course of making more than 80 amendments to Jefferson’s original draft, they had ample opportunity to object. This dog that didn’t bark argues that neither Jefferson nor the Declaration’s other signers relied on Locke’s definition of “self-evident.”

By moving directly from discussing the Declaration’s “style” to invoking an alliance with the language of Thomas Paine, Hitchens sweeps past this problem and moves on. He also finds Locke in the Declaration’s enumeration of our natural rights, although he joins many other writers, again, in noting that the Declaration deviated somewhat from Locke. Where “Locke had spoken of ‘life, liberty, and property’ as being natural rights, Jefferson famously wrote ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.’”

Hitchens makes it seem that these are parallel lists, only the third item of which Jefferson has changed. This interpretation leaves out the crucial point that Locke puts property, his overarching concept, front and center: “Man … hath by nature a power … to preserve his property—that is, his life, liberty and estate.” By glossing over the antecedent of Locke’s listHitchens’ parallel creates a false impression.

Locke’s triad is anchored in property. The Declaration’s is anchored in unalienable rights—and property is unmentioned. We are faced with two fundamentally different accounts, not parallel lists.

In fairness, Hitchens’s version is standard fare. Open any book or scholarly paper that discusses the Declaration and you are likely to read that Jefferson “substituted the ‘pursuit of happiness’ for ‘property.’” Unfortunately, this facile formulation misconstrues Jefferson’s logic in crafting the Declaration. As Leo Strauss wrote in Natural Right and History (1953), “Locke’s doctrine of property … is almost literally the central part of his political teaching.”

Indeed, in his Second Treatise of Civil Government (1689), Locke calls “the preservation of Property” the “end of Government, and that for which Men enter into Society.” It is not just politics and government that are all about property, but society itself. Yet the Declaration’s “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness” not only denies property a central role, but omits it altogether.

Why did Hitchens minimize the important differences between the Declaration and Locke on the meaning of “self-evident,” on property as the basis of our rights, and about “unalienable rights” occupying the space of “property”? Like so many other thinkers, he bypassed the American Enlightenment, which had deep roots in the Scottish Enlightenment.

To understand the Declaration’s “self-evident” we first need to turn to the Scottish Enlightenment philosopher Thomas Reid (1710—1796), who made self-evident truths the foundation of his philosophy of common sense realism. Reidian common sense is the faculty whereby we can grasp self-evident truths, thus making human understanding possible. “The same degree of understanding which makes a man capable of acting with common prudence in the conduct of life,” he wrote, “makes him capable of discovering what is true and what is false in matters that are self-evident.” The self-evident truths common sense grasps are principles implicit in our conduct. For Reid, self-evident truths are true and discoverable by us because of human nature’s constitution.

It is important to understand that Reid was using common sense to vindicate reason, not attack it. For Reid, common sense is the power to grasp what is self-evidently true, and therefore the power that makes reason possible. He argued that without that power we would lack access to the foundational truths we need to be able to reason at all.

Reid focused on the philosophical problems of understanding and moral understanding. The Founders’ achievement was to apply Reid’s thought to the political challenge of creating America’s system of liberty. The truth that all men are created equal, central to their new thinking about man and state, relies on a Reidian understanding of self-evident truth. The Founders built a republic on this principle: because a person capable of acting with common prudence in the conduct of life is also capable of discovering what is true and false in matters that are self-evident, self-government is possible.

Hitchens’s lack of familiarity with Reid’s influence on the Founders’ thinking leads his discussion of Jefferson and the Declaration astray. Moreover, contending that Jefferson’s language synthesized Locke and Paine ignores their dissimilarity. Locke cautiously supported constitutional monarchy, to take one important example, while Paine passionately opposed and mocked any monarchy.

Hitchens’s formulation does work, however, if we simply substitute Reid for Locke. Reid and Paine, authors of An Enquiry into the Human Mind on the Principles of Common Sense (1764), and Common Sense (1776), respectively, are natural allies. We are well on our way to understanding the Founders if we revise Hitchens: The Declaration allied the plain language of Thomas Paine to the loftier expositions of Thomas Reid.

The Declaration’s assertion that we have certain “unalienable rights” is based on the work of another Scottish Enlightenment philosopher, Francis Hutcheson (1694—1746), whose concept of rights is a direct challenge to Locke’s doctrine of property, the core of the latter’s political teaching. For Hutcheson, our rights to life and liberty are natural, unalienable, and inherent to our being as humans.

And our right to our property? “Our rights are either alienable or unalienable,” Hutcheson wrote in the posthumously published A System of Moral Philosophy (1755), but “our right to our goods and labours is naturally alienable.” According to Hutcheson, our right to our goods and labors arises out of the division of labor, which depends on the right to exchange (alienate) them. Because our right to our property is alienable we can sell, exchange, and bequeath it.

Hutcheson’s disagreement with Locke is no mere quibble. As the term was used in the 18th century, to alienate is to transfer the title to a property or other right to another person. As David Hume (1711—1776), the most famous philosopher of the Scottish Enlightenment, wrote:

Property shou’d always be stable, except when the proprietor agrees to bestow them on some other person. This rule can have no ill consequence … since the proprietor’s consent, who alone is concern’d, is taken along in the alienation.

By contending that our rights to life and liberty are such that we cannot alienate them, Hutcheson argued that Locke had incorrectly characterized those rights. Property is alienable, but unalienable rights are not property. Our unalienable rights to our life and our liberty cannot rightfully be sold or transferred as property can be. According to Hutcheson, our life and liberty rights inhere in us as human beings. Calling them unalienable emphasizes how fundamentally different they are from property rights.

The phrase “unalienable rights,” then, borrows language and meaning from Hutcheson and the Scottish Enlightenment philosophers more generally. To take just one example, Reid was following Hutcheson when he wrote of “the natural, the unalienable right of judging for ourselves.” To grasp Hutcheson and his peers’ ideas is to understand the unmistakable significance of “unalienable rights” in the Declaration.