The Philosophy of Thomas Jefferson

By Adrienne Koch | Go to book overview

Chapter XV
NATURAL RIGHTS

MANY people have assailed the "glittering generalities" of natural rights, without having discovered the full meaning beneath the phrase. Part of that meaning has always been only conventional; but sometimes deeper minds used the phrase, for want of a better, to express their most momentous perceptions of the needs or claims of men in society. Jefferson's interpretation of natural rights is not constant, nor is it clearly formulated, but rarely is it superficial.

To what extent is the doctrine of the American Declaration of Independence characteristic of Jefferson's version of the natural rights theory? Let us first recall Jefferson's original version of the Declaration, which, before Congress made its modifications, read:

. . . 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; that whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it . . .1 [Italics mine.]

And an entire passage concerned with slavery, which was later omitted, charged:

He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. This piratical warfare, the opprobium of Infidel powers, is the warfare of the Christian king of Great Britain. Determined to keep open a market where Men should be bought and sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce. And

____________________
1
Autobiography, M.E., I, 29. For "inherent and" Jefferson substituted "certain" inalienable rights.

-133-

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