Bonds of Affection: Civic Charity and the Making of America--Winthrop, Jefferson, and Lincoln

By Matthew S. Holland | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 3
A Model of Natural Liberty

Very late in life, Thomas Jefferson claimed that the Declaration of Independence was not “copied from any particular and previous writing.” However, a side-by-side comparison of Jefferson's “original Rough draught” and George Mason's Virginia Declaration of Rights reveals a conspicuous likeness in the language and logic of these two texts.1

Just after Jefferson arrived in Philadelphia to attend the Continental Congress, the “Committee Draft” of Mason's text was printed in three different local papers just as Jefferson was tasked to draft the Declaration, and Mason, well-reputed “dean of the intellectual rebels” of revolutionary Virginia, was a key mentor to both Thomas Jefferson and James Madison in matters of political theory. All these things convincingly suggest that Jefferson read and in some fashion relied on Mason's text while composing his “original Rough draught” of the Declaration.2 That so, it would appear that Jefferson decidedly left out from his text anything like Mason's final article concerning a duty to practice Christian love.

A most reasonable response to this is that Jefferson's Declaration was a formal break from England, and thus a call to war—hardly the place, it would seem, to make a case for a public commitment to caritas. Yet Mason's document, though not an explicit severing of ties with Great Britain and declaration of war, was tantamount to such and very much an expression of the revolutionary fervor of the day. And several years into the war, when faced with English threats to ravage and burn any city they could occupy, the Continental Congress issued its own warning that it would “take such exemplary vengeance as shall deter others from like conduct” to protect the “rights of humanity,” but explicitly did so not in “anger and revenge” but in great anguish and regret because “the congress consider[ed] themselves bound to love their enemies, as children of that being who is equally the father of all.”3 The point here is

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