November 15, 2011 essays

Was Thomas Jefferson a Plagiarist?

Jefferson drew on a rich intellectual tradition when he drafted the Declaration of Independence. But did he draw directly from contemporary works, as well?

Probably no sentence—or, in this case, fragment of a sentence—in the history of political thought has received more attention from historians and elicited more controversy than this passage from the Declaration of Independence:

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 is how this passage was originally written, in what Thomas Jefferson called his “original Rough draught” of the Declaration:

We hold these truths to be sacred & undeniable; that all men are created equal & independant, that from that equal creation they derive rights inherent & inalienable, among which are the preservation of life, & liberty, & the pursuit of happiness….

On June 12, 1776, within a day of the time that Jefferson probably began writing the Declaration, George Mason’s draft of the Virginia Declaration of Rights was published in the Pennsylvania Gazette. This document reads, in part:

That all men are born equally free and independant, and have certain inherent natural rights, of which they cannot, by any compact, deprive or divest their posterity, among which are the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.

The similarities between Mason’s document and Jefferson’s Rough Draft have led many historians to conclude that Jefferson drew from Mason while writing the Declaration. Jefferson’s biographer Dumas Malone (Jefferson the Virginian) speculates that there may have been a “direct influence,” while Pauline Maier (American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence) goes so far as to say that that Jefferson had Mason’s draft “in hand” while working on the Declaration of Independence.  

Such efforts to trace to earlier sources both the ideas expressed in Jefferson’s Declaration and the particular wording he used are nothing new. Jefferson’s contemporaries engaged in the same exercise, sometimes going so far as to accuse him of plagiarism, in effect. For example, Richard Henry Lee, Jefferson’s fellow Virginian who made the original resolution for American Independence, claimed that Jefferson had copied from John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government.

On April 30, 1819, the Raleigh Register and North Carolina Gazette published a document that has become known as the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence.  This newspaper article begins:

It is probably not known to many of our readers, that the citizens of Mecklenburg county, in this state [North Carolina], made a declaration of independence a year before Congress made theirs.

The Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence, which was supposedly issued by a convention held in Charlotte on May 20, 1775, contains phrases that are identical to those that Jefferson used over a year later. Shortly after John Adams read a reprint of the Mecklenburg Declaration in the Essex Register (June 5, 1819), he wrote to a friend:

A few weeks ago I received an Essex Register, containing resolutions of independence by a county in North Carolina…. I was struck with so much astonishment on reading this document, that I could not help inclosing it immediately to Mr. Jefferson, who must have seen it, in the time of it, for he has copied the spirit, the sense, and the expression of it verbatim, into his Declaration.

After Jefferson read the Mecklenburg Declaration, he wrote to Adams, “I believe it spurious.” Although Adams claimed to be “entirely convinced” by Jefferson’s reasons—some of which were sound and some of which were not—his longstanding jealously of the credit that Jefferson had received for the Declaration of Independence led him to write to another correspondent:

“I could as soon believe that the dozen flowers of the Hydrangia now before my Eyes were the work of chance, as that the Mecklenburg Resolutions and Mr. Jefferson’s declaration were not derived the one from the other.”

Although Jefferson was correct—the Mecklenburg Declaration is indeed spurious—the controversy raged throughout the nineteenth century and into the early twentieth century.  In the New York Review of March, 1837, a defender of the Mecklenburg Declaration, one Dr. Hawks, expressly accused Jefferson of plagiarism—and this charge has been repeated, if only implicitly, by other defenders of the “Mec Dec,” especially North Carolinians.

In Why North Carolinians Believe in the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence, the transcript of a speech delivered to the Mecklenburg Historical Society on October 11, 1894, Dr. George W. Graham stated:

There is no event of the American Revolution about which more has been written than the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence of May 20th, 1775, and at the present time upwards of four score articles are in print concerning it. Some were prepared because the writers desired to see an account of this bold action recorded in the history of North Carolina; some because it was feared that, if the authenticity of this declaration was established, Thomas Jefferson would be proclaimed a plagiarist….

The most thorough analysis of the Mecklenburg Declaration was published in 1907 by William Henry Hoyt: The Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence: A Study of Evidence Showing that the Alleged Early Declaration of Independence by Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, on May 20, 1775, is Spurious. It is virtually impossible for any objective person to read this exhaustive refutation of the Mec Dec Myth and still believe that Thomas Jefferson was a plagiarist.

Lost causes die hard, as we see on the website for the Mecklenburg Historical Association (September 2011), which advertises a lecture by Judge Chase B. Saunders, a fifth-generation North Carolinian. His presentation, A Defense of the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence, is summarized as follows:

A motion for appropriate relief seeking the reexamination of the record of history by the academic community and exoneration of the drafters of the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence.

A motion seeking the trial of UNC Professor Charles Phillips for academic misconduct in his 1853 publication, defaming the drafters and declaring the episode a fraud, for wanton negligence in conducting his research and thereby failing to meet generally accepted standards of academic research and materially deviated from said standards.

What exactly was the academic crime of Professor Charles Phillips? Well, Phillips, having examined the original documents associated with the Mecklenburg Declaration, detected fraud and forgery, and he said so in an article published in the North Carolina University Magazine (May 1853). As Phillips explained in 1858, “[A]ll the story about the 20th of May could not stand before cool and fair criticism…. To me, the assertion, or insinuation, that Jefferson ever borrowed from Mecklenburg is just ridiculous….”

(Whether overt fraud was involved in this complex story is problematic. For a useful summary of the explanation accepted by most historians today, see Pauline Maier, American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence, pp. 172-74.)

In 1823, four years after the publication of the Mecklenburg Declaration, another controversy erupted — one that was precipitated by the embittered Federalist Timothy Pickering, a political enemy of Jefferson who had served as Secretary of State during the administration of John Adams. This controversy focused not on wording of the Declaration of Independence but on the originality of the ideas expressed therein.

In his Fourth of July Oration, Pickering argued that Jefferson had received too much credit for the Declaration, that many other Americans had expressed the same ideas before Jefferson wrote the document. There was nothing surprising in this effort to undermine Jefferson’s contribution, considering that it came from an ardent Federalist and old political enemy. More surprising was this passage that Pickering read from a letter he had received the previous year from John Adams:

As you justly observe, there is not an idea in it but what had been hackneyed in Congress for two years before. The substance of it is contained the declaration of rights and the violation of those rights in the Journals of Congress in 1774. Indeed, the essence of it is contained in a pamphlet, voted and printed by the town of Boston, before the first Congress met, composed by James Otis, as I suppose, in one of his lucid intervals, and pruned and polished by Samuel Adams.

Jefferson responded with remarkable grace to this slight by Adams, especially considering that the two men had resumed their old friendship a decade earlier, after years of political animosity. In an oft-quoted letter to James Madison (Aug. 30, 1823), Jefferson wrote:

Pickering’s observations, and Mr. Adams’ in addition, “that [the Declaration] contained no new ideas, that it is a commonplace compilation, its sentiments hacknied in Congress for two years before, and its essence contained in Otis’ pamphlet,’ may all be true. Of that I am not to be the judge…. Otis’pamphlet I never saw, and whether I had gathered my ideas from reading or reflection I do not know. I know only that I turned to neither book nor pamphlet while writing it. I did not consider it as any part of my charge to invent new ideas altogether, and to offer no sentiment which had ever been expressed before.

As Jefferson explained to a correspondent in 1825, just fourteen months before his death:  

Neither aiming at originality of principle or sentiment, nor yet copied from any particular and previous writing, it was intended to be an expression of the American mind, and to give to that expression the proper tone and spirit called for by the occasion. All its authority rests then on the harmonizing sentiments of the day, whether expressed in conversation, letters, printed essays, or in the elementary books of public right, as Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney, etc.

After decades of studying the Declaration and the standard sources of Real (or Radical) Whig ideas, I have found no compelling reasons to doubt Jefferson’s claim that he “turned to neither book nor pamphlet while writing” the Declaration, and that it was not “copied from any particular and previous writing.” My reasons will be presented in my next essay; but before concluding this essay, I wish to comment briefly on another theory of the Declaration that qualifies as a cult favorite.

In 1966, during my third year of high school, I read a book titled Thomas Paine, Author of the Declaration of Independence (1947). The author, American freethinker Joseph Lewis, presented what appeared to be an impressive array of facts and arguments to support the thesis that Thomas Paine, not Thomas Jefferson, was the real author of the Declaration (or at least most of it).

Puzzled by what I had read, I took the book to school, showed it to my American history teacher, and solicited his opinion. He showed considerable interest and asked to borrow the book.   

I never saw the book again. According to my teacher, it mysteriously disappeared from the teachers’ lounge after he left it there overnight. I got five dollars for my loss, which was twice what I had originally paid, but I never quite believed his story. I suspected my teacher overpaid me out of guilt, because he wanted to keep the book for himself. 

By the time I read Lewis’s book, I had been reading books by and about Thomas Paine for nearly two years. I knew that Paine had been denigrated because of his authorship of Age of Reason—Theodore Roosevelt, for example, called Paine “that filthy little atheist,” even though Paine, a deist, attacked atheism in Age of Reason  — and I shared the desire of many freethinkers to see Paine restored to his rightful place in American history.

But Lewis’s thesis, if true, would mean that Thomas Jefferson, who explicitly claimed authorship, and who, in his own epitaph, listed the Declaration as one of the three achievements for which he wished to be remembered, was one of the biggest liars in American history. It would also mean that Thomas Paine, who never so much as hinted at any connection with the Declaration, was one of the most modest figures in American history. It is difficult to say which assumption is more unbelievable.  

Some years later I obtained another copy of Thomas Paine, Author of the Declaration of Independence and read it again. By that time I knew quite a bit about Thomas Jefferson and the Declaration, so what had previously seemed like a plausible case now struck me as a string of incorrect assertions and unsubstantiated speculations.

I subsequently learned that most of the arguments by Lewis had been circulating for at least a century before his book was published in 1947. The claim that Paine wrote the Declaration goes back at least to the mid-nineteenth century; the standard arguments were repeated time and again in books published by Peter Eckler, The Truth Seeker, and other freethought publishers. It was even given some credibility, if in a scaled-down version, by Moncure Conway in his excellent two-volume Life of Thomas Paine (1892).

My early exposure to the Thomas Paine Thesis taught me a valuable lesson, namely, that historical quackery is more common than one might think, and that books on history should always be read with a critical eye.