Mr. Natural Rights

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Liberty, State, and Union: The Political Theory of Thomas Jefferson, Luigi Marco Bassani, Mercer University Press, 277 pages

The literature on Jefferson is truly enormous. One need only consult the Comprehensive Annotated Bibliography prepared by Frank Shuffelton, comprising several thousand citations, to get a sense of how extensive it is. Indeed, the Library of Congress notes that its Jefferson collection is so large that it is divided into no less than 100 categories. Certainly the most interesting, because the most enduringly relevant, of these is devoted to Jefferson’s political thought – his theory of rights and his conclusions regarding the nature of government. Among the most recent studies of this side of Jefferson is that by Luigi Marco Bassani, professor of political theory at the University of Milan.

Liberty, State, and Union is a truly impressive volume. Bassani seeks to lay bare the fundamental presuppositions of Jefferson’s politics and to uncover the philosophy underlying America’s most important founding document, the Declaration of Independence. In taking up this task, Bassani confronts some 70 years of scholarship that has attempted to sever the connection between Jefferson and Lockean natural rights.

Given Jefferson’s singular importance among the nation’s Founders, it is not surprising that over the years scholars have sought to appropriate him as an early proponent of the views they themselves embraced. Thus, since the Progressive Era, Jefferson has been portrayed as a species of civic humanist, a man who was suspicious of the instrumentalities of an emerging commercial society and who believed that the nation’s virtue rested on an agrarian population active in political life. A typical instance of this interpretation is that of Charles M. Wiltze, whose Jeffersonian Tradition in American Democracy, first published in 1935, offers a picture of Jefferson as an early social democrat who, had he lived, would have embraced many of the reforms of Roosevelt’s New Deal.

Even earlier, Vernon Parrington’s Main Currents in American Thought, published in 1927, painted Jefferson as a proto-socialist who distrusted industry and everything that followed in its wake, a staunch opponent of the capitalist society that was emerging in the Anglo-British world in the 18th century. This Progressivist interpretation clashed head on with the then prevailing view of Jefferson as a classical liberal. Parrington’s essay had the effect of dividing Jefferson scholarship into competing camps that persist to this day. Some historians continue to view Jefferson as a Lockean liberal who distrusted government and subscribed to the strictest limits on the actions of the civil magistrate; others regard him as an agrarian with socialist leanings who only adhered to the principles of private property so far as they served certain political ends.

Perhaps the most egregious examples of invoking Jefferson for purely transient political purposes are the inscriptions on the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C. Planned and built during the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt, the walls of the memorial are adorned with quotations from Jefferson’s writings, many of which suggest that Jefferson advocated positions consistent with the aims of the New Deal – with which he would, in fact, have had little sympathy. Thus, Jefferson’s admonition that an educated electorate was essential if liberty were to be preserved is transmuted into a call for universal public education. And his caution that man, as he advances in his understanding of the world, must accompany his greater enlightenment with changes in his social institutions becomes a justification for a new theory of government in keeping with the social-democratic principles that animated the New Deal.

Bassani’s conclusions are in direct contrast to those of the majority of today’s historians, who have argued that Jefferson distrusted commerce and would have supported legislation to provide for a more equitable distribution of property. Bassani notes at the start that “far from being a radical democratic theorist who made some concessions in the sphere of the rights of the individual, Jefferson was a classical liberal who believed that individuals were the best guardians of their own liberties and natural rights.”

In a meticulously argued and thoroughly convincing analysis of Jefferson views, which remained essentially unchanged until his death in 1826, Bassani’s monograph concludes that there is no merit to the position that Jefferson was prepared to compromise his attachment to the Lockean notion that the right of property was inalienable if doing so resulted in eliminating inequalities in landholding. Contrast this with Wiltze, who at one point argues that for Jefferson “the state is a whole, of which the component individuals are parts, and the property rights conceded to each are conditional on their compatibility with the good of the whole.” One need hardly add that what follows from Wiltze’s claim is that the only arbiter of this compatibility is the government, one of whose functions is to maximize social good by involving itself in the distribution of wealth.

Bassani presents a forceful argument that Jefferson remained a firm believer in the inviolability of property throughout his life and did not draw a distinction between “human rights” on the one hand and property rights on the other. At no point did Jefferson ever defend the redistribution of property. Certainly his support for the confiscation of the estates held by Tories can hardly be considered an example of this, and he explicitly reaffirmed the unassailability of property rights in his Second Inaugural. That Bassani is correct in his description of Jefferson is vouchsafed by Jefferson’s justly famous words from his First Inaugural, which again deserve quotation: “a wise and frugal Government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned. This is the sum of good government, and this is necessary to close the circle of our felicities.”

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Ronald Hamowy [send him mail] is emeritus professor of history at the University of Alberta.

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