From “The disease of liberty”: Thomas Jefferson on History and Liberty (Wilmington, DE: Vernon Press, 2023)
“All men are created equal,” I aim to show, is the axial “self-evidence truth” that Thomas Jefferson expresses in his Declaration of Independence. What, then, is one to make of the curious, unobvious claim?
That cannot be answered until one expiscates what Jefferson means by “equality.” Yet it is first profitable to look at Virginia and the other colonies in Jefferson’s day, for Colonial America would prove a perfect stage to test the notion of some measure of human equality.
“The republican revolution was the greatest utopian movement in American history,” asseverates Gordon Wood. Though a weighty claim, it is true. The links that kept together European societies were links forged of inequality—hierarchies (e.g., king and subject, noble and commoner) that existed and were accepted, if only because people knew no better—and they did not exist in Colonial America. Many if not most of the earliest “settlers” were white dependents: prostitutes, vagabonds, urchins, prisoners from the Irish, Germans, and British in the form of indentured servants or indentured apprentices, who while in England were generally treated no better than beasts to be sold or bought as the market dictated, so the opportunity to leave their condition had large appeal. In this salmagundi of humanity in Colonial America, there was never a strong sense of those British “outcasts” being British. The earliest settlers were merely guinea pigs. Thomas Jefferson, for instance, believed his ancestry on his father’s side was linked to Wales, given some evidence of a “Jefferson” or “Jeaffreson” being a plaintiff or defendant in a law report in Wales, though that information has never been confirmed. The first confirmed evidence of an ancestor is of his grandfather in Chesterfield County, Virginia—toward the east of present-day Virginia. From what can be ascertained of his heritage, he likely did not come from noble blood.
Yet bonds of dependency in Colonial America could readily be broken—say, through serving one’s tenure as a servant or proving one’s worth through work—but not so with bonds of blood, which for the most part did not exist in Colonial America, at least, not as they did in England. Colonists, in deciding the fate of Colonial America, worked from the axiom of some sense of human equality, if only the crude sense of no one being any worse than any other. By the time of the First Continental Congress, Colonists were hell-bent on obliterating the notions of superiority and inferiority and of the king being favored by God. As Jefferson, following John Locke, notes poignantly in Summary View of the Rights of British America, freedom of thought and speech are no gifts of kings, but parts of the “laws of nature,” and “kings are the servants, not the proprietors of the people.”
Those two Jeffersonian sentiments, which doubtless struck a chord with many Patriots, were sockdolagers and could only have infuriated King George III, whose authority was not only being undermined, but also questioned. The first challenged the Hobbesian notion that kings spoke on behalf of God. Subjects who disobeyed their king thus disobeyed God. Jefferson’s words imply that God, through nature, speaks directly to all persons, without need of any intermediary. That claim was, to many traditionalist thinkers, sheer bombast. It demanded a reversal of the centuries-grounded view of the relationship of a king and his people. The people, says Jefferson, were not servants of the king; the king was the servant of the people. The people were not in their actions answerable to their king; the king was in his actions answerable to the people.
Jefferson’s notion of the king as proprietor is also worth analysis. No king owned his people or lorded over them as a superior. Kings were allowed to rule by being given sanction by those persons over whom they ruled.
The bloodline of the bon ton in Europe did not exist in Colonial America. There were no nobles in Colonial America, and those of noble blood who formed the first colonies of North America were soon disabused of their belief in their own superiority. Many of noble blood were part of early Jamestown. Many came for land, because they were not first-born and were destined not to inherit any land, but at least three noblemen were first-born, and so their reasons for leaving England were other: say, adventure or profit. The first list of inhabitants shows that gentlemen far outnumbered laborers, yet they were taught by Captain John Smith that there could be no freeloading in their volatile situation. “He who works not, eats not,” said he—a sentiment that set the stage for the equalitarianism of Colonial America.
It is in that milieu, without different classes of persons based on worth, that Jefferson was nurtured, and that is why he was able to craft so persuasively his Summary View in 1774 and Declaration of Independence two years later. In that milieu, Jefferson could articulate a notion of human equality that supported a robust notion of human liberty for human happiness.
In Summary View of the Rights of British America, Jefferson writes of “complaints” due to “unwarranted encroachments and usurpations” of “those rights which God and the laws have given equally and independently to all.” The wording here suggests that rights and laws are afforded all humans equally and independently and that intimates that all humans are equal and free at birth. That, if correct, is consistent with many other Enlightenment thinkers of Jefferson’s day—e.g., John Locke and George Mason. In his Second Treatise on Government, Locke asserts that the state of nature is a state of perfect freedom and equality. In that state and created by an “omnipotent and infinitely wise maker,” men are the servants of and subjects of that maker, and subjects of his will. And so, one cannot authorize the destruction of another or seek his own extermination. In his Virginia Declaration of Rights, Mason begins, “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.”
What did Jefferson think?
Examination of Jefferson’s first draft of his Declaration of Independence strongly intimates the axiality of equality in Jefferson’s political philosophy—that is, that liberty is derivative. This original draft is prior to the cosmetic edits of Adams and Franklin and the heavy edits of the Congress and, I suspect, offers us the best barometer of Jefferson’s intentions. That is, at least, what I shall argue.
First, the first paragraph is Jefferson’s opening salvo, which lays open to all men the reason for construction of the document. It has been preserved fully in the final version.
When in the course of human events it becomes necessary for a people to advance from that subordination in which they have hitherto remained, & to assume among the powers of the earth the equal & independant station to which the laws of nature & of nature’s god entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the change.
That salvo is an appeal to the good judgment of mankind for the causes of the colonists’ push for separation. It is framed as a conditional (if-then) claim, but the sentence can be taken as an implicit argument (formally, modus ponens: If A, then B; A; so, B), with brackets below indicative of claims implicit:
- When in human events it is necessary for one people to separate from another due to subordination and to form a separate people, equal and independent (entitled them by nature), respect for the opinions of mankind requires that they limn the causes for such separation.
We note here that in the antecedent of the lengthy conditional claim includes the natural entitlement of the equal and independent station of any group of people that has been subordinated to the will of another group. The sentiment seems to be, given inclusion of “independent,” that humans are equal and independent by nature.
Yet that interpretation is challengeable by the second paragraph, which strongly suggests that it is wrong to equate “independence” and “liberty,” for Jefferson then turns to certain truths, which are dubbed in this original draft to be “sacred & undeniable” (numbers, mine), but “self-evident” in the final version:
(1) that all men are created equal & independant, (2) that from that equal creation they derive rights inherent & inalienable, among which are the preservation of life, & liberty, & the pursuit of happiness; (3) that to secure these ends, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed; (4) that whenever any form of government shall become destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, & to institute new government, laying it’s foundation on such principles & organising it’s powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety & happiness.
First, we see that there are four “thats,” each separated by a semi-colon (the first comma should be a semi-colon), and each “that” introduces a key proposition.
Claim 1, concerning the equality and independence of all men, is axial and an ingemination of what was said in the opening paragraph. In claim 2, Jefferson states that the three listed rights—liberty being one—are derivative of equal creation. The significancy of that is we have the rights of life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness, our sacred and undeniable rights, only because we are, in some fundamental sense, equal. The questions here are these: How do “life,” “liberty,” and “pursuit of happiness” follow from “equality”? and if “independence” is not the same thing as “liberty,” then what does Jefferson mean by “independence”?
Claim 3 shows that life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness are rights that governments are instituted to preserve—suggestive that “liberty” differs from “independence” in that liberty is the sort of independence one has in a society, while independence is merely a sort of generic freedom humans have qua being human. That is the view that Jean-Jacques Rousseau, as we shall see in the next chapter, holds. The final draft 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.” Here we do not have the explicit derivation of liberty from equality, but that is not of Jefferson’s doing.
To simplify matters concerning Jefferson’s first draft, we might merely isolate “equality” and “liberty.” What Jefferson says is that “from that equal creation” we are deserving of liberty; not the converse, that from human liberty, we deserve equality. Etiological directionality here is critical. One cannot derive with deductive certainty “equality” from “liberty” other than in a tautologous sense: that is, on assumption that people are equal in that each has in some sense equal freedom in nature. One might then claim that the lion in the gazelle upon which the lion preys are equal in that both enjoy freedom in nature. This line of thinking seems unpromising. Yet “liberty” as a derivative of “equality” and as a political notion of freedom does make sense, at least for humans, and perhaps even for other social animals: Because humans are in some manner equal, they deserve civic liberty.
The third claim—that every government derives its powers to govern from the consent of the governed and it is the task of government to secure the life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness of its citizens—was highly controversial in Jefferson’s day, a topic of vibrant discussion. The received view, believed for hundreds of years and framed boldly by Hobbes in Leviathan, was that kings were answerable only to God.
Finally, the last claim, like the opening salvo, is conditional. When a government turns a blind eye to the rights of its citizens, then its citizens have a right to (a) alter or abolish it and (b) to institute a new government, based on what the citizens deem most likely to promote their safety and happiness.
Jefferson immediately offers a caveat. “Governments long established should not be changed for light & transient causes,” and so citizens ought to suffer abuses while they are sufferable. Nonetheless, “when a long train of abuses & usurpations, begun at a distinguished period, & pursuing invariably the same object, evinces a design to subject them to arbitrary power, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government & to provide new guards for their future security.”
Next, Jefferson lists some 24 grievances (there are more, as many plaints are compound claims)—“facts … submitted to a candid world”—which aim to show King George III’s behavior, when it comes to ignoring their rights, to be discretionary, and thus, tyrannical. The longest, placed at the end, concerns the opprobrium of slavery, and was excised by the Congress, as it was an issue with which Southern states did not wish at the time to grapple.
Finally, there’s the ending paragraph which proffers the ultimate conclusion. “We therefore the representatives of the United States of America in General Congress assembled do, in the name & by authority of the good people of these states, … declare these a colonies to be free and independant states, and that as free & independant states they shall hereafter have power to levy war, conclude peace, contract alliances, establish commerce, & to do all other acts and things which independent states may of right do.”
Thus, the Declaration is a lengthy argument, given in gist mostly in the second paragraph. All people are created equal. All people are endowed with certain rights (life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness) to enable them to live peaceably among each other in a social setting, given their equality. Governmental power is derived from the consent of the people. The main task of a government is to secure its citizens’ rights. When any government fails to secure its citizens’ rights, the citizens have a right to abolish it and institute a new government. King George III has abusively violated the British colonists’ rights (24, or so, grievances). In consequence, the colonists have a right to form their own government in keeping with their own notions of their safety and happiness.
In sum, if my reasoning here is cogent, by following the anfractuous path of reasoning in Jefferson’s original rough draft of his Declaration, the argument for the right to revolution is fundamentally based on the axial notion of human equality. Liberty, as a right, is derivative.
 Gordon Wood, The Radicalism of the American Revolution (New York: Vintage Books, 1991), 229.
 Bernard Bailyn, Voyagers to the West (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1986), 292.
 Thomas Jefferson, Autobiography, ed. Merrill D. Peterson (New York: Library of America, 1984), 3.
 Thomas Jefferson, Summary View of the Rights of British America, The Scholars’ Thomas Jefferson (Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars, 2021), 15.
 “History,” Jamestown Rediscovery, https://historicjamestowne.org/history/history-of-jamestown/first-settlers/, accessed 1 June 2022.
 Thomas Jefferson, Summary View of the Rights of British America, The Scholars’ Thomas Jefferson, ed. M. Andrew Holowchak (Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars, 2021), 3.
 John Locke, Second Treatise on Government, ed. C.B. Macpherson (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1980), II.4–6. It is an argument that goes back to Plato. In Phaedo, Socrates, in prison, entertains the analogical argument that human life is like being in a prison with the gods as guardians. Plato, Phaedo, trans. Harold North Fowler (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, , 1990), 62b.
 George Mason, Virginia Declaration of Rights, National Archives: America’s Founding Documents, https://www.archives.gov/founding-docs/virginia-declaration-of-rights, accessed 31 Oct. 2022.
 This is not to suggest that Jefferson follows Rousseau. There is no evidence that Rousseau’s Social Contract had any influence on Jefferson. Jefferson had Rousseau’s Collected Works in his library, but says little about Rousseau in his letters and other writings.