Among the controversies generated by the Declaration’s second paragraph two stand out as especially contentious: (1) Thomas Jefferson’s use of “self-evident” to characterize “these truths” expressed in the second paragraph, and (2) the omission of the right to property in the list of inalienable (or unalienable) rights. I shall discuss these problems in this essay.
(1) It would surprise some people to learn how much scholarly attention has been devoted to analyzing what Jefferson meant by “self-evident.” Morton White (The Philosophy of the American Revolution, 1978) devotes nearly ninety pages to show that “in the Declaration the use of the word ‘self-evident’ was directly or indirectly influenced” by John Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Garry Wills (Inventing America: Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, 1978) links the meaning of “self-evident” to the “Common Sense” philosophy of the Scottish philosopher Thomas Reid. W.S. Howell, in a 1961 issue of the William and Mary Quarterly, suggests that Jefferson was influenced by a now-obscure logic text (William Duncan’s Elements of Logick) that he read during his college days at William and Mary.
In my judgment, the most plausible explanation is that given by Michael P. Zuckert in his excellent book, The Natural Rights Republic: Studies in the Foundation of the American Political Tradition (1996). Zuckert maintains that “self-evident” should be understood in a “practical” sense, not as an epistemological theory.
This ongoing hermeneutical exercise is complicated by the fact that “self-evident” was a later revision of Jefferson’s Rough Draft, which originally read “We hold these truths to be sacred & undeniable….” So who crossed out “sacred & undeniable” and wrote “self-evident” above it? And why was this revision made?
Some historians believe “self-evident” is in the handwriting of Benjamin Franklin. The Jeffersonian scholar Julian P. Boyd disagreed, maintaining that the alteration bears the distinctive characteristics of Jefferson’s handwriting. But Boyd goes on to argue that John Adams probably suggested the revision.
Fortunately, none of this matters for my purpose here, since Jefferson obviously agreed with the change, regardless of whose idea it was. As Jefferson put it many years later, the revisions made by Franklin and Adams were “merely verbal” and did not affect the meaning of the text.
Jefferson knew that the Declaration would be read aloud to throngs of people throughout the colonies, so he was writing as much for the ear as for the eye. At this stage of composition, before substantial changes were made by Congress, we may safely assume that revisions were made primarily for stylistic reasons. For example, a phrase in the Rough Draft, “rights inherent & inalienable, among which are the preservation of life, & liberty, & the pursuit of happiness,” became “certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”–a definite stylistic improvement without any change of meaning.
We now return to the original question that has generated a cottage industry for historians and philosophers: What did Jefferson mean by “self-evident”?
One good thing about writing overviews of complex subjects is that I can plead space limitations to avoid getting bogged down in technicalities. I hereby proffer this plea, with the understanding that I will gladly discuss this controversy in more detail in the Comments section of this page, should readers be interested.
In accord with the treatment of Michael Zuckert, I believe it highly unlikely that Jefferson used “self-evident” with any technical epistemological meaning in mind. The epistemological interpretation might be credible if Jefferson had confined his self-evident truths to the inalienable rights of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” but he doesn’t stop there. He extends the list to include the purpose for which “Governments are instituted among Men,” the doctrine that governments derive their “just powers from the consent of the governed,” and “the Right of the People to alter or to abolish” an unjust government. It exceeds the limits of credibility to contend that Jefferson viewed all “these truths” as epistemologically self-evident, as if they should be accepted without argument or demonstration.
Note that Jefferson does not say that “these truths” are self-evident. Rather, he says, “We hold these truths to be self-evident….” Jefferson is articulating what Francis Bacon once called “middle axioms,” i.e., propositions that, though not self-evident in themselves, are accepted as axiomatic for the purpose of a particular argument. In later life Jefferson characterized the Declaration’s political principles as “an expression of the American mind.” It was not his intention to invent new principles but merely to summarize the principles that were widely accepted in America and that constituted the theoretical foundation of American Independence.
Jefferson does not argue for the principles expressed in the second paragraph, much less attempt to prove them. He presents them as a given–as contextually axiomatic, so to speak. We can better appreciate the reason for this approach by taking a look at the opening paragraph of the Declaration:
When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the Powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and 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 separation.
It should be kept in mind that the Declaration did not actually declare the independence of the American colonies from Great Britain; this occurred on July 2, 1776, two days before the Declaration was approved by the Second Continental Congress on July 4. It fell to Jefferson, as part of a five-man committee, to explain and justify this momentous decision.
Jefferson’s use of the word “impel” is significant, as is his use of “necessary.” Jefferson didn’t feel the need to justify the Lockean principles expressed in the second paragraph, since he believed they were already accepted by most Americans. But, as I explained in an earlier essay (Notes on the Declaration of Independence), many of these Americans were either undecided about independence or opposed it outright. The Declaration was addressed as much to these people as it was to “mankind” at large. Jefferson wished to convince fence-sitters and skeptics that independence was not a reckless scheme hatched by hotheaded, seditious radicals who were eager to grab power for themselves. (This was the standard line of hawks within the British government.) Rather, independence was rendered necessary by the despotic measures of the British government. Hence the crucial significance of the list of grievances, to which the second paragraph served as a theoretical prelude.
Thus, as Michael Zuckert points out, Jefferson intended “self-evident” to be understood in a practical sense, not as the application of an epistemological theory of self-evident knowledge. There was no way, within the span of a brief document, that Jefferson could have demonstrated the principles articulated in the second paragraph, nor was there any need to do this. Jefferson said “We hold these truths to be self-evident” because he wished to express their axiomatic status among the advocates of American Independence. The purpose of the Declaration was not to justify these fundamental principles but to apply them to the crises with Britain, and this application is found in the list of grievances.
Strictly considered, “self-evident” was not the best choice of words; Jefferson’s original formulation (“sacred & undeniable”) was more precise. But those philosophers who wring their hands over this bit of literary license should keep in mind that Jefferson’s contemporaries, many of whom were well-schooled in philosophy, appeared to have had no problem with “self-evident.” They knew exactly what Jefferson meant.
(2) After stating that men “are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights,” the Declaration goes on to say that “among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
The controversy over this clause, which has been considerable, is owing not to what it says but to what it fails to say. Why did Jefferson omit “property” from his trinity of inalienable rights? Could it be, as some leftist historians have argued, that Jefferson was a quasi-socialist who did not hold property rights in the same esteem as his contemporaries? Even one of Jefferson’s best biographers, Willard Sterne Randall, contends that Jefferson’s “choice of words ‘pursuit of happiness’ over John Locke’s ‘property’ marked a sharp break with the Whig doctrine of English middle-class property rights.”
With due respect to Randall and similar commentators, such interpretations have no justification whatsoever.
The first thing to note is that Jefferson did mention “property,” along with “life” and “liberty,” in some other writings, e.g.: “The End of Government would be defeated by the British Parliament exercising a Power over the Lives, the Property, and the Liberty of the American Subject; who are not, and, from the local Circumstances, cannot, be there represented.” And: “To obtain Redress of the Grievances, which threaten Destruction of the Lives, Liberty, and Property, of his Majesty’s Subjects….”
The second thing to note is that Jefferson refers specifically to inalienable rights, and he states that “among these” inalienable rights are the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness–thereby indicating that his list is not exhaustive.
Why Jefferson did not include “property” in his partial list of inalienable rights is obviously a matter of conjecture, but the reason should be fairly obvious to historians who understand the ambiguous meaning of “property” in Jefferson’s day. It had two distinct meanings. Property was an inalienable right, according to one meaning; whereas it was an alienable right, according to another meaning. Given this ambiguity, to refer to property as an inalienable right would have been confusing without further explanation, and Jefferson was not writing a philosophic treatise.
When we speak of property today, we usually mean a thing or an object that is owned, something to which we have a moral and/or legal right to use and dispose of, such as a pencil. This pencil, we say, is my property; I own it; I have a right to use it, give it away, sell it, or destroy it.
During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the word “property” was often used in a broader sense to mean rightful dominion, or moral jurisdiction, over something. As the Lockean William Wollaston put it during the early eighteenth century: “To have the property of any thing and to have the sole right of using and disposing of it are the same thing: they are equipollent expressions.” This broad conception permitted Wollaston to speak of a man’s “property in his own happiness.”
Whereas we would say “This pencil is my property,” earlier libertarians were more likely to say “I have a property in this pencil.” When John Locke argued that the proper function of government is to protect property, he explained that by “property” he meant a person’s “Life, Liberty, and Estate.” This usage is what Locke had in mind when he wrote that “every Man has a Property in his own Person.”
In Jefferson’s day both meanings of “property” were common, but the older usage, according which I would be said to have a property in my pencil, was giving way to the modern usage, according to which this pencil would be said to be my property. This dual usage was discussed by James Madison in 1792, and his treatment deserves to be quoted at length:
This term [property] in its particular application means “that dominion which one man claims and exercises over the external things of the world, in exclusion of every other individual.”
In its larger and juster meaning, it embraces everything to which a man may attach a value and have a right, and which leave to every one else the like advantage.
In the former sense, a man’s land, or merchandize, or money is called his property.
In the latter sense, a man has a property in his opinions and the free communication of them.
He has a property of peculiar value in his religious opinions, and in the profession and practice dictated by them.
He has a property very dear to him in the safety and liberty of his person.
He has an equal property in the free use of his faculties and free choice of the objects on which to employ them.
In a word, as a man is said to have a right to his property, he may be equally said to have a property in his rights.
Property in the broad sense–i.e, the right to exercise moral jurisdiction over one’s person, labor, and the fruits of one’s labor–was viewed as an inalienable right; to have moral jurisdiction over that which is essential to one’s survival is inextricably linked to one’s moral agency and so can never be transferred or surrendered. But this is not true of property in the narrower sense of material objects that are owned; one can clearly transfer one’s title to pencils and other material goods.
Indeed, the title to a certain amount of property, collected in the form of taxes, was said to have been implicitly surrendered in the Lockean version of the social contract, since revenue was needed for a government to function. It would therefore have been confusing for Jefferson to have included “property” in his partial list of inalienable rights. He would have needed to draw the same distinction that Madison did between two meanings of “property,” and this would have transformed the Declaration from a brief manifesto into a lengthy treatise.
Given many statements by Jefferson, there is no reason to think he would have disagreed with this very Lockean conclusion by Madison:
Government is instituted to protect property of every sort; as well that which lies in the various rights of individuals, as that which the term particularly expresses. This being the end of government, that alone is a just government which impartially secures to every man, whatever is his own.
George H. Smith was formerly Senior Research Fellow for the Institute for Humane Studies, a lecturer on American History for Cato Summer Seminars, and Executive Editor of Knowledge Products. Smith's fourth book, The System of Liberty, was recently published by Cambridge University Press.