Precisely what Jefferson means by “liberty” is a matter of considerable debate among scholars. Merrill Peterson in “Thomas Jefferson and the National Purpose” says that liberty for Jefferson was a code of restraint on sovereignty, exercised by a few or many. Thus, liberty involved minifying and decentralizing government. “He was the first to see that strength, the progress, even the splendor, of the nation might come, not from the consolidation of loyalties, not from the vastness of governing power, but from the release of its myriad individual talents and energies.” J.W. Cooke in “Jefferson on Liberty” notes that Jefferson embraced a multifaceted conception of “freedom”: to do as one wishes and to live, as god-loved creatures, in accordance with a moral ideal of their own choosing. “Jefferson … sought to create an atmosphere congenial to liberty by stressing the need to consider all relevant circumstances—population density, geography, the level of literacy, experience in self-government, virtue, and the like—in determining the type of government best suited for Americans.” Robert Faulkner in “Jefferson and the Enlightened Science of Liberty” says that liberty, for Jefferson, is rational and accords with what is useful. It is not spontaneous, but planned and it serves to engender useful power—i.e., the rights to life, liberty, and happiness. It turns loose the passions and uncages ingenuity. It disencumbers persons from fear of death and useless desires. It devises useful arts and inventions.

Liberty for Jefferson is not a simple, but a complex, concept. One can, I think, tease out at least four senses of liberty for Jefferson.

First, there is what is today commonly called negative liberty, the axial concept of liberal atomism. It is the capacity to live as one wants to live, without the intervention of others—especially meddlesome governors—in one’s personal affairs. The general idea is that government is chiefly in the service of the citizenry. Citizens give, grudgingly, their service to their state in a socially responsible manner to earn time to themselves—viz., time to do as they wish to do. The guarantee of governmental non-interference requires some amount of political participation. What citizens do when they are not politically involved neither concerns the state nor concerns anyone else, so long as in their actions bring no discernible harm to others.

Evidence of embrace of negative liberty in Jefferson’s writings exists in abundancy.

Jefferson’s purchase of negative liberty is well illustrated by his amaranthine commitment to free presses. He was scandalized and harassed by presses that catered to gossip more than useful information. Jefferson writes to Maryland politician Samuel Smith (22 Aug. 1798):

Were I to undertake to answer the calumnies of the newspapers, while I should be answering one, twenty new ones would be invented.

Still, Jefferson ever advocated for free presses. He always openly advocated the free expression of information. He writes to Professor Picket (5 Feb. 1803):

It is so difficult to draw a clear line of separation between the abuse and the wholesome use of the press, that as yet we have found it better to trust the public judgment, rather than the magistrate, with the discrimination between truth and falsehood.

Though Jefferson was concerned about the great potential damage that presses, under governmental influence, could do, he consistently supported a free press, despite its capacity for ill. He believed that free presses, notwithstanding their abuses, were necessary for orderly, republican government. He writes to President George Washington (9 Sept. 1792):

Nature has given to man no other means of sifting out the truth either in religion, law, or politics.

The importance of negative liberty for human happiness was certainly concretized by his reading of ancient history—viz., ancient cities like Athens and Rome that thrived because of their toleration of eccentricities of thought. Commonplacing the Earl of Shaftesbury, Jefferson writes:

As the Antients tolerated visionaries and enthusiasts of all kinds so they permitted a free scope to philosophy as a balance. … Superstition and enthusiasm thus let alone never raged to bloodshed, persecution.

Embrace of negative liberty betrayed fear of the corruptive effects of power on those governing. To philosopher A.L.C. Destutt, Comte de Tracy (26 Jan. 1811), Jefferson writes:

I know that I have never been so well pleased, as when I could shift power from my own, on the shoulders of others; nor have I ever been able to conceive how any rational being could propose happiness to himself from the exercise of power over others.

Jefferson says to geographer and mapmaker John Melish (13 Jan. 1813):

An honest man can feel no pleasure in the exercise of power over his fellow citizens.

To statesman Edward Livingston (4 Apr. 1824), he writes:

In one sentiment of the speech I particularly concur. “If we have a doubt relative to any power, we ought not to exercise it.”

The antitoxin for the corruptions of strong, centralized government was weak, demassified government in the hands of the citizenry.

Second, there is what today called positive liberty—i.e., the sort of liberty that occurs when one lives in a political body that allows for numerous outlets for self-fulfillment. It entails some measure of governmental involvement in defining the good life and some measure of political participation on the part of the citizenry. It is not sufficient for happiness that one is left alone. It is, for Jefferson, in some measure the task of government to secure citizens’ happiness through allowing the creation of social settings in which citizens can thrive. The key is to do that without intruding in citizens’ affairs. I offer several illustrations.

In his 1776 “Draft Constitution for Virginia,” Jefferson proposes that every male citizen of full age and without property should be given 50 acres of land. Those owning property in deficiency of 50 acres will be given property to bring them to 50 acres. In 1786, Jefferson asks James Monroe (July 9):

How may the territories of the union be disposed of so as to produce the greatest degree of happiness to their inhabitants?

The suggestion here is that cities, towns, and land in general ought to be zonated in a manner best suited to promote human thriving. To Virginian David Campell (27 Mar. 1792), Jefferson writes:

That [government] is calculated to produce general happiness, when administered in it’s true republican spirit, I am thoroughly persuaded.

In his Sixth Annual Message as president, Jefferson speaks of a surplus of governmental revenue and suggests spending that money on public education, roads, rivers, canals and “such other objects of public improvement as it may be thought proper to add to the constitutional enumeration of federal powers.” The aim is “new channels of [interstate] communication” so that “lines of separation will disappear, [states’] interests will be identified, and their union cemented by new and indissoluble ties.”

In short, the government must sometimes intervene in citizens’ affairs to allow for full expression of humans’ capacities, and thereby allow for the possibility of human thriving. To minister and patriot Francis Adrian van der Kemp (22 Mar. 1812), Jefferson states:

The only orthodox object of the institution of government is to secure the greatest degree of happiness possible to the general mass of those associated under it.

As is the case with Plato in Republic, it is not the function of a thriving republic to guarantee the happiness of all persons in it, but the greatest amount of happiness of those in it. For Jefferson, however, it is only the task of government to allow for the possibility of human thriving—i.e., the pursuit of human happiness, as he writes in his Declaration—not for happiness itself.

These passages show—and there are numerous more than can be marshaled—that it is in some measure the function of government to secure happiness by certain “mild interventions” in citizens’ affairs. Government ought to act to promote happiness, but such promotion, the various passages show, involves enhancement of human autonomy, not encroachment on it. Citizens are to be ensured that government will not be tempted to intervene in the affairs of its citizens and promote some one-size-fits-all conception of the human good, as is the case with today’s Progressives—hence the need of segregation of church and state. All “interventions” must be designed with long-term aim of promoting human flourishing through assuring human progress and championing science, while honestly safeguarding autonomy. Government must make general education accessible to all citizens and higher education accessible to the natural best. Government must remove the privileges of wealth and birth and reward hard work, honest dealings, and ingenuity. Government must not fall into debt. Government must work toward the elimination of slavery. Government must make land readily available to all citizens needing land. Finally, government must patronize the practical sciences—e.g., learn about America’s land and resources and about the potential for continental expansion.

Third, there is what might be called voluntary liberty—i.e., the freedom to make and act on choices. Voluntary liberty presupposes that humans are in some sense free-choosing organisms that can deliberate on possible courses of action and decide among them. In his defense of slave Samuel Howell in April 1770, Jefferson states:

Under the law of nature, all men are born free, every one comes into the world with a right to his own person, which includes the liberty of moving and using it at his own will. This is what is called personal liberty, and is given him by the author of nature, because necessary for his own sustenance.

The capacity to deliberate on and choose among possible courses of action means little, however, without knowledge and some degree of imagination.

Voluntary liberty requires some amount of knowledge. To enable persons to make worthwhile voluntary choices, education and meaningful life experiences are needed. It is not government’s job to promote meaningful life experiences, only to allow for their possibility, and best way to do that was by means of promoting general and higher education.

Imagination is an ally of knowledge. Humans possess the inborn capacity to imagine the world as it might be. Jefferson, because of his unstinted belief in human advance, was continually in the business of imagining the world as it might be. As gardener, he was a plotter of esculent, medicinal, and ornamental plants in an aesthetically pleasing manner. As architect, he was a designer of buildings that accommodated, inspired, and educated people. As inventor, he was a creator of technological devices to improve human efficiency. As scientist, he was a deviser of hypotheses to be tested by experience. As philologist, he tinkered with proper formation of neologisms by enhancing the structural capacities of the English language. As political philosopher, he proposed both a basic schema for republican government and offered several suggestions on instantiations of that schema through his ideas on constitutional reforms.

Finally, there is what might be called moral liberty, which might be provisionally grasped as a capacity to recognize, or “sense,” right action as right action and act on it because of that, is strictly speaking a species of voluntary liberty, as moral activity is a species of voluntary action. Under voluntary liberty, we can list adiaphorous actions and moral actions.

Not all activities, for Jefferson, are moral activities. Some are adiaphorous: neither moral nor immoral. The engagements of science—e.g., squaring the circle, tracing the orbit of a comet, or investigating the arch of greatest strength or the solid of least resistance, as he says in his Head-and-Heart letter to Maria Cosway (12 Oct. 1786)—are not moral activities, but strictly affairs of reason, though they certainly might have moral implications in circumstances. Boondoggling—e.g., counting the number of limes on a tree, the number of freckles on a face, or the number of puffins on a promontory to pass the time—is also not a moral action so long as one is not boondoggling to eschew moral action.

Many other activities—and I suspect the lion’s share of them, for few human activities have no moral implications—are moral actions for Jefferson. From his letter to Cosway, Jefferson’s decision to bypass a “poor weathered soldier,” who pleaded to be taken up on Jefferson’s coach at Chickahomony was, he admits, a moral failing—a judgment of reason against the moral sense. His purchase of the Louisiana territories and his work on the University of Virginia were moral accomplishments.

For Jefferson, discernment of correct moral action is in the main, independent of reason. Rationality and moral sensibility are separate faculties. Jefferson says to Marfia Cosway:

When nature assigned us the same habitation, she gave us over it a divided empire, [Reason or Head was] allotted the field of science; [Heart or the moral sense] that of morals.

Discernment of morally correct action is visceral and immediate, not ratiocinative.

For a more politically charged discussion, see this week’s video….


M. Andrew Holowchak

M. Andrew Holowchak, Ph.D., is a professor of philosophy and history, who taught at institutions such as University of Pittsburgh, University of Michigan, and Rutgers University, Camden. He is editor of Journal of Thomas Jefferson and His Time and author/editor of over 65 books and over 275 published essays on topics such as ethics, ancient philosophy, science, psychoanalysis, and critical thinking. His current research is on Thomas Jefferson—he is acknowledged by many scholars to be the world’s foremost authority—and has published over 200 essays and 27 books on Jefferson. He also has numerous videos and a weekly series with Donna Vitak, titled “One Work, Five Questions,” on Jefferson on YouTube. He can be reached at [email protected]

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