Saturday, March 07, 2009

Thomas Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence

As readers of this blog are well aware, Thomas Jefferson was not my favorite founder. When I write about him, it is usually to bash him. He was one of the worst secretaries of state, presidents and vice presidents we have ever had.

Sometimes I think one lengthy post about Jefferson listing his horrible record both as a politician and a human being might be coming some day. In my post on John Quincy Adams a few weeks ago I threw in a quote from Adams’ diary which sums up many of my complaints against Jefferson in a paragraph. It is far from comprehensive though, and yet for the sake of those who read this blog, it might be better to do it bit by bit. In this, I just want to talk about the reason for his greatest fame and shoot it down like the dog of a claim it is.

I do acknowledge that Jefferson qualifies as a “great” man in many ways. But, when I say great, I mean in the same way Joachim Fest used the word in his classic Hitler biography. Hitler, Fest concluded, was a “great” man, in consideration of his effect upon the world. He certainly did not consider Hitler a good man at all and tried to write an accurate biography of his strengths and weaknesses. I see Jefferson in the same way (although not in any way as bad as Hitler).

He was part of the group of men who were leaders in the Revolution (although the least among the famous ones) and in our early days was Virginia’s governor, U.S. Minister to France, Secretary of State, Vice President and then President. Through his writings and work in Virginia’s government he has had an impact on our lives, even today, some it very important. And he was brilliant and superbly accomplished, even among other privileged persons of his time (although, no Franklin to my way of thinking). Yet, in many ways, he is a great villain too.

You can read about Jefferson’s “greatness” just about anywhere. I concentrate on his not so great stuff because he is immortalized as a national icon and doesn’t deserve it all. As educated and gifted as he was, and as much as I appreciate his contributions to separation of church and state and his devotion to education, there was so much “bad” in there that he just should not be celebrated with the fervor some of the other forefathers are.

Were I to rank the forefathers in importance, I would put Washington and Franklin as indispensible (there precedence was so presumed that the jealous Adams once wrote that the history of the revolution was a lie and that “The essence of the whole will be that Dr. Franklin’s electrical rod smote the earth and out sprang General Washington. That Franklin electrified him with his rod—and henceforth these two conducted all the policy, negotiation, legislation and war.”) Following those two I would put John Adams himself, Sam Adams, Hamilton and Madison for their constitutional and first administration/congressional work, and then John Marshall as the great shaper of our judiciary. Last in this group, comes Jefferson.

With respect to the Revolution, Jefferson was a member of the Continental Congress, and had a respectable, although I do not think critical role. When Virginia’s Governor during the Revolution, he fled at the approach of the enemy, which, in the mind of any number of men, including his cousin, John Marshall, made him a coward. Charges were brought in the Assembly and eventually, he resigned over it. It’s not an unfair supposition as those were the days when every man, even politicians, were expected to pick up a gun and fight. Jefferson was in France at the time the Constitution was drafted and was a mere observer at a distance. He was not instrumental during his time as Secretary of State or Vice President except in a most negative manner, pulling for his party against the incumbent. His state’s rights position was and still is quite popular among many Americans, even if they don't know he was its greatest exponent (before he became president, that is). However, his view of the balance between state and federal government would be considered extreme today (he thought of the federal government as a foreign country) and except for the short-lived southern confederacy and some near secessions, has been largely discredited. I must admit I have some sympathy for his position intellectually, but most Americans are glad it failed. His presidency, which I must leave for another day, greatly weakened America and helped put us on a course for war with Britain.

There is no doubt that Jefferson is most famous for one thing in particular – his drafting of America’s most revered document – the Declaration of Independence. (“DOI”).

These next two related points are most important: First, it is not my intention to show that Jefferson was “wrong” in borrowing or stealing from other writers without attribution. What I am saying is that whether it was okay or not to do it, it was extensive and the borrowings constitute a large enough portion of the few paragraphs we are discussing as to detract from Jefferson’s reputation, which is largely based upon it. Second, I do not argue that he deserves no credit for drafting it, which would be ridiculous, or even that he should not get a lot of credit, which would also be hard to swallow. I only argue only that he is given too much credit, because so much of the DOI was derived from others.

I also do recognize that the rules for plagiarism were not the same then as they are now. That doesn’t mean though that it was a novel idea. The English word “plagiary,” derived from Latin, had been around since the beginning of the 17th century, i.e., it preceded even The King James Bible. Copyright laws existed in England since the early 18th century and America was under those laws until independence. In fact, when what was known as the Mecklenberg Declaration of Independence was discovered in 1819 and thought by many to have preceded Jefferson’s Declaration by over a year, it caused quite a stir. In fact Adams, jealous of Jefferson’s greater fame, was quite happy about the controversy, and asked him in a roundabout way whether he plagiarized it. Jefferson, however, convinced Adams rather quickly that it was nonsense. Although it is still controversial as to whether the Mecklenberg Declaration was real or not, or whether, if not a hoax, it preceded the DOI, scholarship is decidedly in favor of the DOI’s precedence, and I agree. Thus, the Mecklenberg Declaration forms no part of my opinion here. You can Google it if you’d like to know more about it. Nor do I take anything away from Jefferson from liberally taking from his own previous writings. In fact, as he produced a draft within a few days when he was otherwise exceptionally busy, it would be remarkable had he not.

I rely completely on the work of scholars who have pointed out the corresponding thoughts and language between the DOI with other earlier documents and use Jefferson's draft presented to Congress for quotes. You may, in fact, have read some of these facts elsewhere. The reason I bother to make this argument at all is because it is hard to find a fair and even reasonably comprehensive compilation of this issue, particularly one that is not slanted towards Jefferson.

One of my favorite historians, Garry Wills, an original and wonderful writer, paints what I can only describe as a highly negative portrait of Jefferson in some of his works, but is always quick to urge us not to read too much into or not believe in Jefferson’s greatness. I think he and other scholars shy away from more balanced and fairer conclusions, but I cannot say what their motives are. Perhaps they are just treading carefully with U.S. mythology.

Had Jefferson not written the DOI, it is likely Adams would have, or even Franklin were he not ailing, or perhaps an ensemble. Some argue that had he not returned to Virginia, there is a good chance that Richard Henry Lee, who had the honor of moving that independence be declared in the Continental Congress, would have been assigned the job. But John Adams says it’s not so. Adams and Franklin were capable of great writing too although the DOI would have been a different style had either of them written it. Perhaps, though, it would have not been completely different in the main points. Adams recalled years later that their committee met and the main points were discussed before it was drafted by Jefferson. Jefferson had different memories, that is, that he wrote it before discussing it with Adams and Franklin, and then the other committee members, but, both he and Adams’ memories have both been challenged by scholars with great success. Even though Adams has far more credibility than Jefferson, we cannot tell for sure if one is more right than the other as they both wrote about it decades after it occurred. We just know they are both off.

I do disagree with David McCullough’s view in his book on Adams, that he was the better writer of the two. To so conclude, I think he must have fallen a bit in love with his subject, as many biographers do. One need only read a little of Adams and Jefferson’s correspondence, including to each other, to know that Jefferson was a substantially better writer. Franklin may have been Jefferson’s match as a writer, and perhaps even his superior in terms of creativity (although he was a shameless plagiarizer himself), but aesthetically, Jefferson had the more eloquent pen of the three, and was probably the most gifted writer of all of the founders.

I start with the least important of my comparisons, the Dutch Declaration of Independence, written over two centuries before Jefferson’s DOI. Like our DOI it is basically a statement of the reasons for declaring independence. The Dutch declaration is not as eloquent as Jefferson’s declaration is in English – I cannot speak to its beauty in Dutch. There are only a few similar phrases which would raise an eyebrow, but the main similarity (which you will have to take my word for the sake of brevity or read it online yourself) is the basic structure of the declaration. Essentially, both works explain the bad acts of the ruling “prince” behind the declaring of independence.

You might argue that – it’s a declaration of independence – of course it is similar, and that is a fair argument, but it can only be taken so far. As Pauline Maier demonstrates in her American Scripture – there were many declarations of independence in America by states, counties, even judges. The one that most closely mirrors the older Dutch declaration in my mind, is Jefferson’s. In addition there are actually two examples of strikingly similar phrases in the two documents. Here are the phrases from the Dutch declaration with the similar language from Jefferson’s DOI in parentheses:

This is the only method left for subjects whose humble petitions (“petitioned for redress in the most humble terms”) and remonstrances could never soften their prince or dissuade him from his tyrannical proceedings; and this is what the law of nature (“laws of nature”). . . .”

Just two examples, you sneer. Here’s why even those few phrases are important. When we talk about the beauty of the DOI, we really mean the first two paragraphs and the last one, plus a few other phrases, as the bulk of the text is not all that poetic, comprised of an occasionally nonsensical laundry list of bad acts by King George III. Thus, two examples are a lot considering how few sentences we are talking about, particularly when the phrasing is so close. By itself, these will not seem very important. It becomes more so after you see the following examples.

It is well known to anyone who studies American history that Jefferson relied on John Locke’s Second Treatise on Government. In particular, here are the comparisons with the DOI in parentheses again:

. . . mankind are more disposed to suffer while evils are sufferable than to right themselves . . . but when a long train of abuses and usurpations . . . pursuing the same object, evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism . . . (“People . . . are more disposed to suffer than to right themselves. But, if a long train of abuses, prevarications, and artifices, all tending the same way, make the design visible to the people”.)

. . . no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions. (“that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”)

The similarity is too striking to ignore. In fact, nearly a half century later, Jefferson gave Locke as a source, but he only listed him with other authors, some ancient, in a general way. Not much of an admission.

I skip over the English 1689 Bill of Rights because, while founders knew about it and may have been inspired by it, it was more an inspiration for our own Bill of Rights and other documents, a bit of which I cover in my discussion of George Mason, below.

This borrowing without acknowledgment goes a long way to explaining why John Adams, also highly literate and with much of the same knowledge base as Jefferson, at some times so resented the adulation received by Jefferson for drafting the DOI. He was gracious to Jefferson, even flattering, in a letter to a Jefferson hater, Timothy Pickering, but also said:

As you justly observe, there is not an idea in it but what had been hackneyed in Congress for two years before. The substance of it is contained in the declaration of rights and the violation of those rights in the Journals of Congress in 1774. Indeed, the essence of it is contained in a pamphlet, voted and printed by the town of Boston, before the first Congress met, composed by James Otis, as I suppose, in one of his lucid intervals, and pruned and polished by Samuel Adams.

Indeed, Otis’ 1764 pamphlet seems to have been read by Jefferson, or he might have picked this up some language from Otis in the Continental Congress:

The end of government being the good of mankind points out its great duties: it is above all things to provide for the security, the quiet, and happy enjoyment of life, liberty, and property (“that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”).

Obviously, Otis borrowed from Locke too. But, remember, the point isn’t that Jefferson borrowed or stole some words or thoughts, or even whether others did so. The point is that too much of the document is derived from others to give Jefferson so much credit.

The form of government is by nature and by right so far left to the individuals of each society that they may alter it from a simple democracy or government of all over all to any other form they please (“that whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government”).

The colonists are by the law of nature freeborn, as indeed all men are, white or black (“We hold these truths to be self evident: that all men are created equal).

George Mason was much more important founding father than many recognize, if they’ve even heard of him, as the Virginia Declaration of Rights he drafted in 1776 was the basis for the U.S. Bill of Rights drafted years later by fellow Virginian James Madison. In fact, Mason refused to sign our proposed Constitution, mostly because there was no statement of rights in it. Indeed Mason’s Virginian Declaration of Rights preceded and remained independent from the Constitution he also penned for Virginia. It would not be unfair to say that he should share billing, at the least, with Madison as the author of our Bill of Rights, although Mason in turn admittedly used the English Bill of Rights as his rough model (including such language as “bear arms,” “cruel and unusual punishment” and “excessive bail”).

Jefferson, however, without admitting his source, used Mason’s language to a great degree. Although Mason (who also channeled Locke) wrote his declaration a month before Jefferson wrote the DOI, Mason’s work was published in Philadelphia shortly before Jefferson made his draft.

Here are some quotes from Mason’s Declaration compared to Jefferson’s DOI:

I That all men are by nature equally free and independent, and have certain inherent rights, of which, when they enter into a state of society, they cannot, by any compact, deprive or divest their posterity; namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety (“We hold these truths to be self evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with inherent and inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”).
II That all power is vested in, and consequently derived from the people; that magistrates are their trustees and servants, and at all times amenable to them (“that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed”).
III . . . whenever any government shall be found inadequate or contrary to these purposes, a majority of the community hath an indubitable, unalienable, and indefeasible right to reform, alter or abolish it, in such manner as shall be judged most conducive to the public weal (“that whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government”)
It should be noted that this is how Mason begins his declaration and how Jefferson nearly starts his but for the initial general paragraph. Now after Locke, it is often written by historians that that Jefferson was perhaps most influenced by Mason. But, words like "influenced" or "inspired" are really insufficient here. Indeed, Jefferson took some of his words and ideas straight from Mason’s work. This is true regardless of the fact that Jefferson wrote more beautifully than Mason and had some additional language and ideas of his own.

If that wasn’t enough, take this language from Richard Henry Lee in moving Congress for independence:

That these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent states, that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is, and ought to be, totally dissolved (“we utterly dissolve all political connection which may heretofore have subsisted between us and the people or parliament of Great Britain: and finally we do assert and declare these colonies to be free and independent states”).
Actually, Congress, when editing Jefferson’s text, took out Jefferson’s words and put back in Lee’s, which is what the declaration as we know it says. Thus, there can not be any argument about this at all. I imagine Lee, who was a good friend of Jefferson, was pleased that Jefferson took his words and worked them in, even differently. In fact, Jefferson, made copies of his draft and the final version and sent them off to Lee to Virginia.

We also know that before Jefferson put his work before congress, he changed his own [We hold these truths to be] “sacred and undeniable” to “self evident,” which was a much more sonorous phrasing. It is believed that this was at the suggestion of Franklin, but it may have been someone else. No matter. It wasn’t Jefferson. That small fact is, again, by itself meaningless. It is only when taken in context of all of the facts that it becomes one more building block to argue that Jefferson gets too much credit.

I turn now to the brilliant work of Garry Wills in his Inventing America where he painstakingly shows Jefferson’s debt to philosophers from the Scottish Enlightenment earlier in the 18th century. Although Wills acknowledged in later editions that he was wrong in believing that Jefferson had not borrowed from John Locke, he opened up a whole new avenue in Jefferson studies, and that isn’t easy. No doubt, as Wills showed, Jefferson may have been most influenced among the Scots by the works of Francis Hutcheson.

Here are a few words by this Scottish philosopher which should sound awfully familiar to you:

In this respect all men are originally equal, that these natural rights equally belong to all . . . and they are equally confirmed to all by the laws of nature (We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their creator with inherent and inalienable rights”).
Actually, “unalienable” was a frequently used word by Hutcheson. But, he had other thoughts which ended up, at least in spirit and sometimes using the same words, in the DOI:

But as the end of all civil power is acknowledged by all to be the safety and happiness of the whole body, any power not naturally conducive to this end is unjust; which the people, who rashly granted it under an error, may justly abolish again when they find it necessary to their safety to do so (“whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles, and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.)”

Nor is it justifiable in a people to have recourse for any lighter causes to violence and civil wars against their rulers, while the public interests are tolerably secured and consulted. But when it is evident that the public liberty and security is not tolerably secured, and that more mischiefs, and these of a more lasting kind, are like to arise from the continuance of any plan of civil power than are to be feared from the violent efforts for an alteration of it, then it becomes lawful, nay honorable, to make such efforts and change the plan of government (“Prudence, indeed, will dictate that governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shown that mankind are more disposed to suffer while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, [begun at a distinguished period and] pursuing invariably the same object, evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their right, it is their duty to throw off such government, and to provide new guards for their future security.”)
Wills suggests, and I concur, that many people would mistake the Hutcheson selections above for the DOI. I might and I've read the Declaration any number of times. Inventing America is actually filled with examples of Jefferson's debt not just from Hutcheson but from a number of other Scottish philosophers. As one example, numerous authors used “pursuit of happiness” before Jefferson, and that is one of the signal phrases from the DOI. Wills points out that previous writers used it in somewhat different ways. Nevertheless, the phrase was well known to Jefferson from his studies before he ever used it. Were I tomorrow to use “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times” in a way Dickens did not intend, it would not lessen the fact that I used his words.

But, it is not my intent to be comprehensive here (rarely is) and there are other examples in the DOI that have plainly been taken from others.

Wills seems to find it necessary to state that he is not calling Jefferson a plagiarist and even points that others defended him in that regard as well. They would not have needed to do it if the words of the DOI were not positively dripping with other people’s words and ideas.

Indeed, there is very little in the DOI that is pure Jefferson, albeit he created a beautiful prose poem in those three paragraphs and under great stress and time considerations. That’s why I will begin to end where I started, by stating that Jefferson deserves a lot of credit for the declaration, just not as much as he is commonly given.

It is fair to give Jefferson some last words on the subject too. These are from a letter to Henry Lee IV, of the famous Lee clan (actually, he was Robert E. Lee's half brother), in 1825, a little more than a year prior to his death and nearly 50 years after independence was declared.

This was the object of the declaration of independence. 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 in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent, and to justify ourselves in the independent stand we are compelled to take. 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, and to give to that expression the proper tone and spirit called for by the occasion. All of its authority rest, 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, Sydney, &c.

Jefferson was rightfully proud of his role in writing the DOI. On his tombstone he asked that only three accomplishments be noted, one of which was the writing of this founding document. His letter to Lee sounds humble, but was it when he left out so many important people from whom he literally and liberally took words and ideas? I think not. As important as the DOI was to him and as deep as his reverence for some of these authors were, I find it hard to believe he forgot. Without beating this dead horse further, even pro-Jefferson biographers note the care he took to craft public sentiment about him, even to the extent of writing letters and diary entries which he knew would be left to posterity that make him sound better than he had been.

It is clear that Jefferson and others took from Locke, but Jefferson only mentions him in a very general way. He doesn't say -- I took this and that from Locke. Aristotle and Cicero I have trouble seeing as inspiration for the DOI (in fact, Jefferson seemed not to think much of the Greek philosopher), and I am unaware if Sydney words ended up in the DOI either, although he certainly wrote on the general topic. But why leave out George Mason, or was it because that might garner too much fame for a contemporary? Why not mention Francis Hutcheson, or was that too close in time for Jefferson’s ego? Why not mention Henry Lee's relative, Richard Henry Lee, from whom there can be no doubt Jefferson took a sentence and merely re-wrote it (before Congress put it back the original way)?

Henry Lee IV was no admirer of the Sage of Monticello and had actually written to Jefferson to ask if he had read the work of Richard Henry Lee's brother, Arthur Lee (a very important revolutionary era figure himself), given that Henry had seen the similarity between one of Arthur's manuscripts and the DOI. We do not have the writing to which he refers, so much more can not be said. It is some testimony, nonetheless, of which I have no found mention in the literature except in Henry’s 1837 Commentary on Jefferson’s Writings, which excoriated the late founder. There, Henry suggests that Jefferson was a plagiarizer not only of Arthur Lee's work, but Mason’s, Locke’s and others, as well. You see, the fact that we now can see from where Jefferson got his ideas and some phrases does not mean that Jefferson was truthful about it in his own time. But, that's pure Jefferson. Where Adams was known to be honest to a fault, even by his enemies, Jefferson was dishonest and usually at fault.

I have to add, to be fair, that Henry Lee was so vexed at Jefferson that he could barely see straight and could not even bring himself to admit that Jefferson was a good writer, which is plainly silly, to use a scholarly term. So, his evidence is weak, particularly as we do not know to which Arthur Lee manuscript he refers, but I add it here only because it is so little known a fact, and is just one more chestnut upon the pile.

Ah, that is even enough Jefferson bashing for the day to satisfy me. And I will repeat one more time that Jefferson deserves lots of credit for the DOI and I argue only that he is given too much. I have at least John Adams on my side.


  1. BOOL-YAH!!! It is on now, and you are toast, little man!
    Hitler and Jefferson in the SAME paragraph!
    The LAST of the forefathers, you rate him higher than that fascist Marshall? ARRRGGGGHHHH! I cannot speak, I cannot get the words out. The lust for blood is too strong. He was a lousy Sec. of State! His wily negotiating saved us from being perpetually indebted to the French, you nincompoop! His Presidency greatly weakened America? Yes, that's right, we'd be much better off if the country stopped at the Mississippi River. Rahhhahhhhahhhh! He was dishonest and usually at fault! Oh, that's rich. As though he invented politics, or should be blamed for being better at it than Adams. ..usually at fault, yes, that's why his career had such a low ceiling... ARRRRRRRRRRRR! Must...not... form... fist.... of...death....

  2. A comparison between Jefferson and Hitler? Hmmm. There's an idea.

    You know, the whole time I'm writing it, and I wasn't putting on the dog - I believe every word of it - I'm thinking, this is going to make Bear insane. Maybe permanently.

    As to his sneering remarks that Jefferson did something really valuable as secretary of state, I will prick that bubble another day. It's too bad they can't just erase that face from Mt. Rushmore and I might let it rest.

    I'm just glad that the fist of death can't go through the phone.


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I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .