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Research Article

Jefferson and the Scottish Enlightenment: A Critique of Garry Wills’s Inventing America: Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence


Garry Wills’s study of the intellectual background to that most famous of all American political documents, the Declaration of Independence, is nothing short of revolutionary.[1] In what is surely the most ambitious effort to investigate the political philosophy underlying the Declaration since Carl Becker published his monograph in 1922,[2] Wills, with enormous ingenuity, has attempted a thorough reinterpretation of Jefferson’s meaning as it emerges in the document. His thesis, simply put, is that there are really three Declarations: the Declaration as political document (the Declaration adopted by Congress); the Declaration as symbol of nationhood (the Declaration as a product of later reinterpretation); and the Declaration as philosophical treatise (the Declaration as written by Jefferson). The major emphasis of Wills’s monograph, and that which provides the subtitle of his book, is on this third Declaration, Jefferson’s Declaration.[3] The “heart” of his analysis—the term is Wills’s—is his contention that, far from bearing the imprint of Lockean political theory, the Declaration, as Jefferson originally intended it, can be properly understood only if it is analyzed as a product of the Scottish Enlightenment, and that Jefferson’s views on the nature of man and society derived not from John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government but from the works of Thomas Reid, David Hume, Adam Smith, Lord Kames, Adam Ferguson, and Francis Hutcheson. Hutcheson’s system of moral philosophy particularly, Wills contends, contains the key to decoding the theory of the nature and proper functions of government embedded in the Declaration. To his central argument Wills attaches several others in defense of his theory of three Declarations: that the Declaration, to those who signed it, held none of the significance as a national symbol that it was later to acquire, and that, far from creating a new nation, bound together by a common outlook respecting the relation between men and government, the document created thirteen countries having less in common with each other than each individually had with Britain. It was only in the nineteenth century, Wills holds, that the Declaration was imputed with the status of forging a new nation, of “inventing America,” out of the disparate elements and conflicting interests represented by the colonial governments. These contentions, interesting and problematic as they are in themselves, appear secondary when compared with the central focus of Wills’s book, which glosses the Declaration as a product of Scottish moral philosophy, devoid of Lockean influence.

The student of Jefferson’s earlier years is at a major disadvantage when examining the intellectual climate in which Jefferson grew up. In 1770, when he was twenty-seven years old, a fire destroyed his mother’s plantation home, consuming his library and, with it, almost all his papers. The result is that much of the evidence pointing to the influences that shaped his thought cannot but be indirect and the conclusions must be based, at least in part, on conjecture. Wills observes that the study of Scottish Enlightenment thought played a prominent role in American education in the second half of the eighteenth century. Scottish moral philosophy was an integral part of the curricula of most American colleges, and this seems to have been especially true in Virginia. At the College of William and Mary, William Small of Aberdeen taught moral philosophy, rhetoric, and belles-lettres, and it was primarily under Small that Jefferson did his undergraduate work. “Jefferson spent the four most intellectually exciting and influential years of his life studying that entire ‘system of things’ under Small’s guidance,” Wills notes.[4] During that period, Jefferson became acquainted with the works of Hutcheson. Wills informs us that Small taught Hutcheson’s own discipline by Hutcheson’s own method and that Hutcheson’s works “were regularly in Jefferson’s hand.”[5] Nor was Hutcheson the only Scottish writer whose works were familiar to Jefferson. Wills makes much of the fact that the basic library list that Jefferson prepared for a friend in 1771—”in just the period when he was replacing his own lost library”—contained works by Smith, Reid, Hume, and Kames.[6]

There is no reason to doubt Wills’s contention that Jefferson was closely acquainted with the Scottish moral philosophers. In fact, it would be surprising if he were not. The Scottish writers were authors of international repute, numbering among them many of the most important intellectuals of the eighteenth century. All educated Englishmen on both sides of the Atlantic—indeed, all educated Europeans—were familiar with their writings. Wills’s characterization of Jefferson’s years of study under Small as “the most intellectually . . . influential years of his life” is a piece of hyperbole for which no evidence exists; but it is clear that Jefferson was well aware of the works of the Scottish Enlightenment and perfectly plausible that he could have been introduced to them at William and Mary. What makes Wills’s thesis so startling is his assertion that these thinkers alone provided the framework for Jefferson’s thought on politics and morals before he drafted the Declaration and that Locke’s treatises on government can be dismissed as having had no influence on Jefferson’s views.

In support of his position Wills relies heavily on John Dunn’s essay tracing the impact of Locke’s Second Treatise on English and American thought in the eighteenth century.[7] But Wills goes far beyond the conclusions warranted by a careful reading of Dunn’s article. Dunn notes that Locke’s treatise was “only one work among a large group of other works which expounded the Whig theory of revolution, and its prominence within this group is not noticeable until well after the general outlines of the interpretation had become consolidated.”[8] He does not deny that it played a prominent role in the controversies which the colonies had with England after 1760, or that Americans were familiar with Locke’s views on politics, or that the theory of government propounded in the Second Treatise was taken seriously by educated colonists. Indeed, if anything can be concluded from Dunn’s essay, it is that—at least during the first half of the eighteenth century—the Lockean perspective on government and revolution was so commonplace that little if any intellectual dispute surrounded it. Dunn admits, however, that in the second half of the century—when the practical implications of Locke’s political views were hotly debated—it became imperative to treat his political writings with full intellectual seriousness.[9] Dunn’s findings are not inconsistent with Bernard Bailyn’s study of the ideological origins of the American Revolution, which finds that “in pamphlet after pamphlet the American writers cited Locke on natural rights and on the social and governmental contract” and that the treatises of Locke ranked in colonial America as “the most authoritative statement of the nature of political liberty.”[10] It might well be true, as Dunn observes, that “the Adamses and Jefferson, Dickinson and Franklin, Otis and Madison, had come to read the Two Treatises with gradually consolidated political intentions and they had come to it to gather moral support for these intentions.”[11] The fact of the matter is that to understand the philosophical assumptions behind the quarrels between England and the colonies, it was essential to have read the writers of the whig revolutionary tradition, the foremost of whom was Locke. It does not matter that rebellious longings preceded a well-formulated theory of rebellion. The theory which the colonists early settled on was undoubtedly Lockean.

On what basis, then, does Wills claim that “Locke had original things to say in the Second Treatise, but they were not grasped or emphasized”? “His glorious name,” Wills contends, “was just added to the list of authors in the whig tradition.” Even more extreme is Wills’s assertion that “there is no indication Jefferson read the Second Treatise carefully or with profit. Indeed, there is no direct proof he ever read it at all.” To the contention that the Declaration of Independence—both in argument and phrasing—clearly echoes Locke’s famous essay on government, Wills replies: “Those who think Jefferson had to derive his natural right of revolution from Locke have no direct textual parallels to draw on. But the parallels within the Scottish school are everywhere.”[12] This is especially true of Francis Hutcheson, whose A Short Introduction to Moral Philosophy, published in 1747, contains passages which accord with the language of the Declaration and from which Jefferson might possibly have drawn his ideas.[13] Following are the passages from Hutcheson, together with their comparisons in Jefferson’s final draft of the Declaration, as offered by Wills.[14] Additionally, I have included the textual parallels from the Second Treatise-previously pointed out by numerous commentators—which have apparently escaped Wills’s notice.

Hutcheson: But as the end of all civil power is acknowledged by all to be the safety and happiness of the whole body, any power not naturally conducive to this end is unjust; which the people, who rashly granted it under an error, may justly abolish again when they find it necessary to their safety to do so.[15]

The Declaration: Whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying it’s foundation on such principles, & organising it’s powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.

Locke: Whensoever therefore the Legislative shall transgress this fundamental Rule of Society; and either by Ambition, Fear, Folly or Corruption, endeavour to grasp themselves, or put into the hands of any other an Absolute Power over their Lives, Liberties, and Estates of the People; By this breach of Trust they forfeit the Power, the People had put into their hands, for quite contrary ends, and it devolves to the People, who have a Right to resume their original Liberty, and, by the Establishment of a new Legislative (such as they shall think fit) provide for their own Safety and Security, which is the end for which they are in Society.[16]

Hutcheson: Nor is it justifiable in a people to have recourse for any lighter causes to violence and civil wars against their rulers, while the public interests are tolerably secured and consulted. But when it is evident that the public liberty and safety is not tolerably secured, and that more mischiefs, and these of a more lasting kind, are like to arise from the continuance of any plan of civil power than are to be feared from the violent efforts for an alteration of it, then it becomes lawful, nay honorable, to make such efforts and change the plan of government.[17]

The Declaration: Prudence indeed will dictate that governments long established should not be changed for light & transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shown that mankind are more disposed to suffer while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.

Locke: Till the mischief be grown general, and the ill designs of the Rulers become visible, or their attempts sensible to the greater part, the People, who are more disposed to suffer, than right themselves by Resistance, are not apt to stir.[18]

Hutcheson: A good subject ought to bear patiently many injuries done only to himself, rather than take arms against a prince in the main good and useful to the state, provided the danger extends only to himself. But when the common rights of the community are trampled upon, and what at first is attempted against one is made to be precedent against all the rest, then as the governor is plainly perfidious to his trust, he has forfeited all the power committed to him.[19]

The Declaration: But when a long train of abuses & usurpations, begun at a distinguished period and pursuing invariably the same object, evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism it is their right, it is their duty to throw off such government [the draft continues: “& to provide new guards for their future security,” although Wills ends his quotation as above].

Locke: But if a long train of Abuses, Prevarications, and Artifices, all tending the same way, make the design visible to the People, and they cannot but feel, what they lie under, and see, whither they are going; ’tis not to be wonder’d, that they should then rouze themselves, and endeavour to put the rule into such hands, which may secure to them the ends for which Government was at first erected . . . [20]

It is not surprising that Wills has managed to discover similarities in thought between Hutcheson’s political philosophy and the Declaration, although these correspondences are even greater, particularly in phrasing, between the Declaration and the Second Treatise. Hutcheson was closely acquainted with Locke’s political writings, which were of enormous importance in determining the direction and structure of his own conclusions on politics and especially on the right of resistance. As an intimate friend of Robert Molesworth, whom Caroline Robbins describes as the most influential liberal whig of his day,[21] Hutcheson was early exposed to whig revolutionary doctrine as expounded in the theories of James Harrington, Algernon Sidney, and Locke. From these authors, particularly from Locke, Hutcheson borrowed heavily in designing his political views, including the description of men operating under a system of natural liberty and his conceptions of the scope and content of natural rights, the impetus for the establishment of civil society, and the right of resistance. Although his conclusions were not identical with those of Locke—Hutcheson was a proponent of the principle of utility in assessing the proper functions and ends of government—they were extremely close. Certainly this goes a long way toward explaining the similarities Wills has unearthed between Hutcheson’s political discussions and the sentiments expressed in the Declaration. The conclusion he draws, however, is untenable. “I do not argue for direct borrowing,” Wills writes, “since the Hutchesonian language was shared so widely by Scottish thinkers. I do conclude that Jefferson drew his ideas and words from these men, who stood at a conscious and deliberate distance from Locke’s political principles.”[22] Hutcheson—at least in the area of political theory touched on in the Declaration’s discussion of the right of resistance—stood at no distance at all from Locke’s political principles. As for the other Scottish thinkers, they neither used Hutchesonian language nor, indeed, shared most of his political conclusions.

Among the Scots whom Wills regards as influential in shaping Jefferson’s views, Thomas Reid was little interested in political questions and, by 1776, had written nothing on political philosophy. His An Inquiry Into the Human Mind, which first appeared in 1764, was his only major work before the drafting of the Declaration, and it was exclusively concerned with questions of perception and sensation. Adam Ferguson had published two books before 1776: An Essay on the History of Civil Society, in 1767, and the Institutes of M oral Philosophy, two years later. The Institutes constituted a summary of Ferguson’s lecture notes on ethics and contained nothing of importance in the area of political theory. The Essay, on the other hand, was exclusively devoted to the growth, nature, and functions of civil society. Despite long sections of the Essay dealing with despotism, Ferguson did not even raise the idea of revolution as a possible solution to even the most entrenched tyrannies. David Hume, when he discussed politics, held that rebellion is permissible when authority becomes so oppressive as to be intolerable. At that point, men are “no longer bound to submit” to the civil magistrate.[23] But this is a far cry from laiming both a right and a duty to resist tyrannical government, as stated in the Declaration. Indeed, the right to authority, for Hume, far from resting on consent, “is nothing but the constant possession of authority, maintain’d by the laws of society.”[24] Although Adam Smith conceded the legitimacy of resistance to government in the event f violent abuses of power, his remarks on the point were confined to his lecture notes on jurisprudence. Since these notes never saw print in J efferson’s lifetime, it is unlikely that Jefferson was familiar with this aspect of Smith’s thought. Yet even in his lectures, Smith’s support for rebellion against tyranny was half-hearted at best. “No government is quite perfect,” he noted, “but it is better to submit to some inconveniences than make attempts against it.”[25] Indeed, in the Theory of Moral Sentiments, a work with which Jefferson may well have been acquainted, Smith wrote of the habitual deference to the rich and powerful that is the product of the sympathetic sense that makes civil society possible. “Even when the order of society seems to require that we should oppose them [the rich and powerful], we can hardly bring ourselves to do it,” Smith observed. “That kings are the servants of the people, to be obeyed, resisted, deposed, or punished, as the public conveniency may require, is the doctrine of reason and philosophy; but it not the doctrine of nature. Nature would teach us to . . . bow down before their exalted station, to regard their smile as a reward sufficient to compensate any services, and to dread their displeasure, though no other evil were to follow from it, as the severest of all mortifications.”[26]

The general drift of Scottish political thought was in the direction of moderation and reform in conflicts with civil authority. To the extent that these writers discussed the right of the subject to resist tyranny, they uniformly held that the criteria that justify recourse to such an extreme remedy are particularly strict and, in all cases, to be considered only as a last resort. This differs markedly from the views of Locke and Hutcheson, who held that allegiance to the magistrate ceased when government violated the contract under which it had come into being. Indeed, Hume, Smith, and Ferguson rejected the idea that government owed its origin to a contract and that its legitimacy rested on popular consent. Wills is therefore correct when he claims that the Scottish philosophers stood at a deliberate distance from Locke’s political principles, but he is in error when he counts Hutcheson among their number and when he claims that the language of Hutcheson’s political observations was shared by the Scottish thinkers who followed him. Almost all the evidence Wills has marshalled to support his assertion that the Declaration is really a document of Scottish moral philosophy collapses when one recognizes how far the sentiments expressed by Jefferson differ from those of Hume, Smith, and Ferguson, and how closely they accord with Locke. In writing the Declaration, Jefferson had either Locke or Hutcheson in mind, but certainly not the other Scottish writers. And, despite Wills’s conjectures respecting Jefferson’s intellectual background, the available data strongly suggest that it was Locke and not Hutcheson to whom Jefferson was indebted when he composed the document.

Wills’s contention that Locke’s political writings were unimportant in shaping Jefferson’s views cannot stand up to careful investigation. For example, the conclusion which he draws from David Lundberg and Henry F.May’s survey of early American libraries[27]—that Locke’s Treatises were comparatively uninfluential works in the period before 1776—is thoroughly misleading. Lundberg and May’s study can only be taken as suggestive, first, because of the limited sample of booklists surveyed, and, second, because over one half of its statistical information is gleaned, not from library holdings, but from booksellers’ catalogues, the great bulk of which—for the period 1700 to 1776—falls in the years after 1750. There is thus a slight bias in favor of newer titles. Yet even with all its limitations, the Lundberg-May study indicates that, among political writings, the Treatises were surpassed only by Sidney’s Discourses Concerning Government, Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws, and Trenchard and Gordon’s Cato’s Letters in the number of catalogues in which they appeared before the Revolution. Indeed, if one were to include Locke’s Works, which of course contained the Treatises, then—assuming no overlap—Locke’s political writings stand preeminent in this category.

Equally misleading is Wills’s use of the booklist for a basic library which Jefferson prepared for Robert Skipwith. When Wills wishes to show the esteem with which Jefferson regarded the Scottish thinkers, he refers to “an important basic library list drawn up for a friend in 1771,” a fragment of historical data, he claims, from which the scholar can reassemble Jefferson’s intellectual world before the Shadwell fire. “His list indicates the core of the library Jefferson had first owned or aspired to own,” Wills observes, “and he told his friend that Monticello already held a more extensive collection than the 147 titles on the list.”[28] Wills finds it significant that the names of Smith, Reid, Kames, and Hume appear in the list. Yet, a few pages earlier, when he attempts to minimize the role that Locke’s political writings played in shaping Jefferson’s thought, he parenthetically refers to “the list for a basic library” where Locke’s name is “cited together” with that of Sidney.[29] In fact, Locke is no more” cited together” with Sidney than with any other author. Under the topic “Politicks, Trade,” which contains eight works, there are eight distinct and separate entries of which “Locke on government” is one and “Sidney on government” another. No Scottish thinker appears under this heading. More important, Hutcheson does not appear on the list at all.[30]

In support of his thesis Wills minimizes, misinterprets, or disregards every piece of evidence supporting Jefferson’s familiarity with Locke’s political views and their role in providing the argument presented in the Declaration. This evidence includes the following:

(1) The Treatises were purchased by Jefferson in 1769, before the Shadwell fire.[31]

(2) They appear on Jefferson’s basic library list of 1771.

(3) The Second Treatise is cited in Jefferson’s Commonplace Book, a collection of extracts compiled during his student days.[32]

(4) In the catalogue of his books made by Jefferson between 1783 and 1814, the Treatises are listed as an early entry.[33]

(5) In addition to the Treatises, Jefferson owned the 1714 edition of the Works of Locke, containing the two Treatises, which was included in the massive library he eventually sold to Congress in 1815.[34]

(6) In a letter to Thomas M. Randolph in 1790, in which he recommends several works on politics and jurisprudence, Jefferson wrote that “Locke’s little book on Government, is perfect as far as it goes.” (“Descending from theory to practice,” he added, “there is no better book than the Federalist.”[35] His recommendation of the Federalist Papers does not, of course, detract from his praise of Locke, as Wills implies.)

(7) In a letter to John Norvell in 1807, Jefferson discussed the principles of civil society and the proper organization of government: “I think there does not exist a good elementary work on the organization of society into civil government: I mean a work which presents in one full and comprehensive view the system of principles on which such an organization should be founded, according to the rights of nature. For want of a single work of that character, I should recommend Locke on Government, Sidney, Priestley’s Essay on the First Principles of Government, Chipman’s Principles of Government, and the Federalist.”[36] Again, Locke’s name heads the list of works recommended.

(8) On March 4, 1825, determined “to pay especial attention to the principles of government which shall be inculcated therein,” the Board of Visitors of the University of Virginia, under the direction of Jefferson, adopted the following resolution: “Resolved, that it is the opinion of this Board that as to the general principles of liberty and the rights of man, in nature and in society, the doctrines of Locke, in his ‘Essay concerning the true original extent and end of civil government,’ and of Sidney in his ‘Discourses on government,” may be considered as those generally approved by our fellow citizens of this, and the United States.”[37]

(9) Specifically referring to the Declaration, Jefferson wrote in 182 5: “All its authority rests then on the harmonizing sentiments of the day, whether expressed in conversation, in letters, printed essays, or in the elementary books of public right, as Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney, &c.”[38] Jeffersonthus linked the Treatises directly to the sentiments expressed in the Declaration.

(10) Jefferson possessed Locke’s political works in his retirement library, assembled after the sale of his collection to Congress.[39]

What evidence is adduced that Jefferson had the Scottish philosophers, specifically Hutcheson, in mind when writing the Declaration? There is none. Indeed, Hutcheson, who among the Scots comes closest in his views to those expressed in the Declaration, is not once quoted, cited, referred to, or recommended, in any connection, in any of Jefferson’s writings![40]

This dearth of hard evidence connecting Jefferson with Scottish moral and political philosophy has encouraged Wills to wander freely over the intellectual map of Europe to interpret the phrasing employed in the Declaration. Thus, in explicating Jefferson’s use of the term “self-evident,” Wills provides, among other things, a simplistic account of Reid’s epistemology and what he calls Reid’s “humble” empiricism.[41] He omits any reference to the probable influence of William Duncan, whose Elements of Logick Jefferson almost certainly read while under the tutelage of William Small, who had been a student of Duncan at Marishal College, Aberdeen. Duncan’s Logick defined self-evident propositions as those that required no more than “a bare Attention to the Ideas themselves” to produce” full Conviction and Certainty.” Such “intuitive and self-evident Perceptions” constituted “the ultimate Foundation” for a line of syllogistical reasoning that led with mathematical certainty to the demonstration of “the Truth proposed.”[42] There is no reason to believe that Jefferson had recourse to Reid in choosing the term “self-evident,” or that he meant anything more by it than did Locke and Duncan: “intuitively true,” Hmanifest,” “undeniable.” This is supported by reference to earlier drafts of the document, where Jefferson had originally written “sacred and undeniable” in place of the term “self-evident.” But Wills dismisses any draft earlier than the one submitted to Congress by the committee appointed to draw up the document, despite the fact that the preliminary drafts might throw light on what Jefferson could have meant by a word or phrase. No reason is offered for this neglect except the irrelevant statement that “this is the text he [Jefferson] lived with and wanted known.”[43]

Indeed, when Jefferson suggested that it is a self-evident truth that all men are created equal, what he was doing, whether consciously or not, was echoing Locke, who wrote: “This equality of Men by Nature, the Judicious Hooker looks upon as . . . evident in it self, and beyond question . . .”[44] What Locke here meant by equality is clearly defined. Men in the state of nature are equal in that II all the Power and Jurisdiction is reciprocal, no one having more than another: there being nothing more evident, than the Creatures of the same species and rank promiscuously born to all the same advantages of Nature, and the use of the same faculties, should also be equal one amongst another without Subordination or Subjection . . .”[45]

But Wills, in his pursuit of Scottish influences, takes Locke’s views as here expressed to signify that Locke supported the notion that man in nature has a contract with himself,[46] a notion the Scottish school and Jefferson rejected, and one which Locke himself would have disputed. There is no need to have recourse to Hutchesonian influences to interpret men as naturally sharing the same faculties of reason, justice, and charity. Locke explicitly states this in the Second Treatise.[47] However, Wills has managed to obfuscate this point by confusing a natural right arising out of equality with a contract issuing from that right. Further, in his zeal to differentiate Locke from the Scottish thinkers, Wills makes the preposterous statement that II for Hume and Hutcheson, right had to be a power extended over others, or over some aspect of their lives.”[48] Now if he is here interpreting Hume and Hutcheson correctly, it is obvious that the Declaration repudiates this notion of right. However, he is in fact perverting the designation of the term as both Hume and Hutcheson understood it in order to distinguish the natural equality of men as it is offered by Hutcheson and by Locke. One need only compare the language of Hutcheson on natural right and equality—as provided by Wills in another context[49]—with that of Locke to see that the differences are minimal: “In this respect all men are originally equal, that these natural rights equally belong to all, at least as soon as they come to the mature use of reason; and they are equally confirmed to all by the law of nature. . . . Nature makes none masters, none slaves.”[50]

This tortured attempt to create differences where none exists is carried over to Wills’s treatment of Jefferson’s list of inalienable rights. Why, he asks, is “property,” central to the Lockean canon, excluded from the trinity? The answer to this question, we are told, lies in an analysis of Hutcheson’s philosophy, where “property, depending on agreement (compact) for its definition (its delimitation, or division), follows on society rather than precedes it.”[51] Wills arrives at this conclusion because Hutcheson noted that men may alienate their property, that is, trade it, sell it, give it away, etc. Here Wills is the victim of a semantic muddle. Hutcheson did not hold that property is an “adventitious right” rather than a “natural right,” as Wills contends, but that the right to possess and to alienate specific property after it has come into private possession is adventitious, that is, arising out of “some human institution, compact, or action.” Hutcheson was eminently clear on this point. He stated that” all adventitious real rights arise from a translation of some of the original rights of property from one to another. “[52] In his chapter on “natural rights,” which falls in the section of his System of Moral Philosophy dealing with the laws of nature “previous to civil government,” Hutcheson declared: “Each one has a natural right to the use of such things as are in their nature fitted for the common use of all; . . . and has a like right, by any innocent means, to acquire property in such goods as are fit for occupation and property, and have not been occupied by others. The natural desires of mankind, both of the selfish and social kind, shew this right.”[53] Hutcheson defined “natural rights” as those rights that derive “from the constitution of nature itself without the intervention of any human contrivance, institution, compact, or deed.”[54] Hutcheson so firmly rejected the notion that the right to property follows upon a compact, as Hume was later to maintain, that he took both Grotius and Pufendorf to task for advancing this view.[55] When Wills writes that “Hutcheson recognized man’s right to the fruits of his labors, but he put this in terms of a paradoxically

unalienable right to alienate one’s property,”[56] he is passing off a confusion as a profundity. No one who holds that the right to property is inalienable, including Locke, would argue that one cannot alienate specific property. If Jefferson chose to substitute the broader “pursuit of happiness” for “property” in his list of inalienable rights, it certainly was not because he substituted Hutcheson’s notion of property for Locke’s. There are simply no significant differences between the two thinkers on the subject.

Perhaps nowhere in his long and complex book does Wills say less in more convoluted language than in the two chapters he devotes to glossing the term” pursuit of happiness.” After treating the use of the words “pursuit” and “happiness” without apparent purpose—as they are used in a variety of contexts by Locke, Delisle de Sales, d’Holbach, Peter Paxton, the Encyclopédie, Johnson’s dictionary, Laurence Sterne, Hutcheson, George Mason, Lord Kames, Bacon, James Thomson, Ferguson, Diderot, James Wilson, the Abbé Pestre, Voltaire, Robert Mauzi, Muratori, Verri, Beccaria, Lafayette, Shakespeare, Helvetius, Hume, Burlamaqui, Adam Smith, and Lord Shaftesbury—Wills makes the following observation: “The important thing to notice about Jefferson’s use of Wilson is that he makes happiness a hard political test of any reign’s very legitimacy, not a vague yearning of the individual.”[57] Now James Wilson’s statement “that the happiness of the society is the first law of every government” came from Burlamaqui; Burlamaqui, we are told, was a disciple of Hutcheson; and Hutcheson, in turn, understood the maximization of happiness—here I am partly guessing at the thread of Wills’s argument—to be the ultimate test of the morality of any social act, including the acts of the civil magistrate. Thus Jefferson’s substitution of the broader term “pursuit of happiness” for Locke’s “property” as an inalienable right upon which civil society is founded is, for Wills, conclusive proof of Hutcheson’s influence on Jefferson’s views as expressed in the Declaration.

What are we to make of this? We have already been correctly informed that Hutcheson regarded the foundation of all moral acts to be benevolence, that basic moral sense which all men share. Yet even if benevolence-as-a-motive and utility-as-a-goal are assumed to be indistinguishable in Hutcheson’s moral philosophy, what has this to do with rights? Wills has earlier observed that, for Hutcheson, man’s innate moral sense cannot but compel him to pursue happiness.[58] “Men,” Hutcheson wrote, “are necessarily determined to pursue their own happiness.”[59] What, then, is the point of positing as a basic right which only tyrannies would violate, that which is impossible of violation? Not even Nero could turn men into trees, and not even the most despotic of governments can prevent men from pursuing their own happiness, as Hutcheson uses the term. In response to this, Wills seriously suggests that Jefferson deliberately included a “right” to pursue happiness while consciously employing the term as having the force of a physical law! “Jefferson,” Wills observes, “means to state scientific law in the human area—natural

law as human right. . . . In that little word ‘pursuit,’ as it was actually used from Locke’s time to Hutcheson’s, we have a shorthand for the linked doctrines of determined will and free act.”[60] But Wills makes no attempt to explain why Jefferson would couple the notion of “right as scientific law,” a right which, by its nature, cannot be transgressed, with the rights to life and liberty, which clearly can be transgressed. The confusion is compounded when we attempt to make sense of the Declaration’s statement that governments are instituted among men to secure these rights and that when governments fail to do so they maybe altered or abolished. Are we to understand that when governments do not secure a right logically deducible from a law having the force of the law of gravity, they may then be abolished? The philosophical absurdity implicit in this formulation of the concept of the “pursuit of happiness” cannot be what Jefferson had in mind when he employed the phrase.

There is a more sensible explanation, although it is admittedly conjectural. When Jefferson spoke of an inalienable right to the pursuit of happiness, he meant that men may act as they choose in their search for ease, comfort, felicity, and grace, either by owning property or not, by accumulating wealth or distributing it, by opting for material success or asceticism, in a word, by determining the path to their own earthly and heavenly salvation as they alone see fit. Governments may infringe this right only at the peril of violating the social contract on which their legitimacy ultimately rests. This appears to be the only interpretation consistent both with Jefferson’s views respecting individual autonomy and with the structure and language of the Declaration. The Declaration does not proclaim that the end of government is the maximization of happiness, as Wills suggests, nor does it predicate the legitimacy of government on whether its citizens are happy[61] but, rather, on whether the rights of its citizens are respected. In the document, the right to pursue happiness stands logically prior to the establishment of government, and the function of government is clearly to secure this right, not to see that most people attain the state they pursue.[62]

Much of Wills’s confusion, both here and throughout the book, arises from the premise upon which Inventing America was written, that the Declaration, at least as Jefferson drafted it and before it was submitted to Congress, is a discourse on moral philosophy and not a document of political principles.[63] The result is that when Jefferson made statements respecting the things that governments mayor may not do in order to act consistently with natural law, these statements are interpreted by Wills as really referring to what men in their voluntary relations with other men ought and ought not to do. Although the two sets of statements are related, they are by no means identical. For there are many things that morality enjoins or commands of individuals which no signer of the Declaration, including Jefferson, would have regarded as applying to the civil magistrate. The Declaration is precise on this score. The sole legitimate function of government is to secure man’s inherent and inalienable rights; once it ceases to do this, men have both a right and a duty to throw off such government and provide new guards for their future security.

It is impossible in a short critique to explore fully the maze of confusions, misinterpretations, and errors in which Wills’s essay wanders. For example, Wills writes of Scotland in the eighteenth century: “In the forties and fifties of the century, Scotland had a constellation of original thinkers not to be equaled anywhere in Europe—not only Hume and Smith, Kames and Hutcheson, but Adam Ferguson, Thomas Reid, and the young Dugald Stewart.”[64] This statement is important to Wills’s thesis that during Jefferson’s years at William and Mary, the “most intellectually exciting and influential years of his life,” he was introduced to these thinkers by William Small, who had come to Williamsburg in 1758 intent on passing on to Virginians the ideas ‘expressed by these men. But Wills’s description of the forties and fifties is thoroughly inaccurate. Hutcheson died in 1746, and “the young” Dugald Stewart was not born until 1753. In the fifties, Adam Smith was a young, unpublished professor at Glasgow, while Ferguson (like Smith, born in 1723), was a young chaplain to the Black Watch regiment, busy killing his fellow men in Ireland and Brittany. Reid, although a year older than Hume, did not publish a major work until 1764 (at the age of fifty-four), and it was to have no influence across the Atlantic until his philosophical system was introduced to America by John Witherspoon of Princeton at the end of the century. Only Hutcheson, Hume, and Kames were established intellectuals during the period to which Wills refers. Of these three, Kames was an expert in British constitutional law and Hume an internationally respected philosopher. Neither had written anything remotely resembling the sentiments Jefferson was to express in the Declaration. Only Hutcheson’s works, heavily influenced in their political philosophy by Locke and the other whig revolutionary thinkers, might have stirred Jefferson’s interest, although there is no evidence even for this.

Indeed, there is inferential evidence that Hutcheson, far from being the “real author” of the Declaration, was of no importance or interest to Jefferson. Wills faults previous writers on Jefferson’s thought, particularly Daniel Boorstin, Gilbert Chinard, and Adrienne Koch,[65] in that their “studies of his intellectual world tend to pick him up after 1776.”[66] Yet except for Jefferson’s letter to Robert Skipwith in 1771 and the Declaration itself, Wills is also forced to turn to Jefferson’s writings after he composed

the document. But even among the vast written resources available to buttress his argument that Jefferson was a firm adherent of Scottish moral philosophy and that this philosophy played a crucial role in his political thought, Wills has come up with only a few references, usually expressing moral propositions so common in the eighteenth century as to be attributable to any of a dozen thinkers, each seldom extending beyond a phrase and supplied without the context in which it was written. Not one of these explicitly refers to the Scottish moralists, either as a group or individually.[67]

Wills finds it worthy of note that Hutcheson’s An Inquiry into the Original of Our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue, his Synopsis Metaphysicae, and his Short Introduction to Moral Philosophy, are among the titles listed in Jefferson’s library sold to Congress in 1815. However, since Jefferson’s library was one of the largest in North America, consisting of over five thousand titles, the importance of their presence is minimal. What is more significant is that, of Hutcheson’s two works which dealt with politics within the context of moral philosophy, the Short Introduction and his System of Moral Philosophy, Jefferson had bothered to acquire only the first volume of the two-volume edition of the Short Introduction.[68] He did not feel it necessary to acquire a copy of Hutcheson’s most important work, the two-volume System published posthumously in 1755. Now it is as inconceivable that someone who was seriously interested in Hutcheson’s philosophy would have overlooked this work as it would be for a Hobbesian to fail to acquire a copy of the Leviathan.

Finally and, one would think, decisively, the language of the Declaration, although expressing views of the social contract, the nature of individual rights, and the right of rebellion that were shared in almost all particulars by Hutcheson and Locke (although certainly not by the other Scottish writers), is, in one respect, totally antithetical to Hutcheson’s moral philosophy and that of the whole Scottish school. Where Jefferson wrote that “all men are created equal”—a comment that Wills regards as crucial to understanding Jefferson’s basic communitarianis—-he had, in an earlier draft, written that “all men are created equal and independent.[69] The Scottish thinkers, including Hutcheson, would have been appalled by such a statement, with its denial of man’s innate sociability and sense of benevolence. It is, however, totally consistent with the whig revolutionary tradition of which Locke was the outstanding spokesman.

Wills’s book is so speculative and so unfocused in its examination of the intellectual forces at work in shaping Jefferson’s views as they are expressed in the Declaration that the unwary reader may be overwhelmed by the author’s seeming erudition and lulled into accepting his conclusions. In a word, Wills talks a pretty good game. But the moment his statements are subjected to scrutiny, they appear a mass of confusions, uneducated guesses, and blatant errors of fact. Inventing America falls into the category of “impressionistic” intellectual history, where breadth of coverage substitutes for scholarly substance. The reader is occasionally unsure whether the book is even meant to be a scholarly work. It lacks a subject index, and Wills has chosen to “footnote” his sources through often imprecise parenthetical citations. Future scholars may feel called upon to consult Inventing America when investigating Jefferson’s intellectual roots, for completeness’ sake if for no other reason. They will there find that Wills has invented a new Jefferson influenced by a Scottish moral philosophy which Wills has seriously misconstrued.


1. Garry Wills, Inventing America: Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence (New York, 1978).

2. Becker, The Declaration of Independence: A Study in the History of Political Ideas (New York, 1922).

3. Wills, Inventing America, ix.

4. Ibid., 180. Wills errs in suggesting that Jefferson studied under Small for four years. Jefferson was enrolled at the College of William and Mary and was Small’s student from 1760 to 1762. In 1762 he left the college to study law under George Wythe. However, the friendship between Jefferson and Small continued until Small returned to England in 1764 and has led one Jefferson scholar to remark that Jefferson “was as intimate with Small for two more years as one of his age could be” (Dumas Malone, Jefferson and His Time, I: Jefferson the Virginian [Boston, 1948], 55).

5. Wills, Inventing America, 201.

6. Ibid., 175.

7. Ibid., 170. Dunn, “The Politics of Locke in England and America in the Eighteenth Century,” in John W. Yolton, ed., John Locke: Problems and Perspectives: A Collection of New Essays (Cambridge, 1969), 45–80, hereafter cited as Dunn, “Politics of Locke.”

8. Dunn, “Politics of Locke,” 80.

9. Ibid., 62.

10. Bailyn, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (Cambridge, Mass., 1967), 27, 36.

11. Dunn, “Politics of Locke,” 77.

12. Wills, Inventing America, 170, 174, 238.

13. References to the works of Francis Hutcheson, both in Wills and in this article, are to the facsimile reprint edition, Collected Works, 7 vols. (Hildesheim, Ger., 1969–1971). Works cited in this critique are An Essay on the Nature and Conduct of the Passions and Affections (London, 1728), II; A Short Introduction to Moral Philosophy (Glasgow, 1747), IV; and A System of Moral Philosophy (Glasgow, 1755), V, VI, all hereafter cited as Hutcheson and the title of the work.

14. Wills, Inventing America, 238–239.

15. Hutcheson, A Short Introduction, 302.

16. John Locke, Two Treatises of Government . . . (London, 1690), ed. Peter Laslett (Cambridge, 1960), sec. 222. Subsequent citations to this work will be to the Second Treatise.

17. Hutcheson, A Short Introduction, 303.

18. Locke, Second Treatise, sec. 230.

19. Hutcheson, A Short Introduction, 303.

20. Locke, Second Treatise, sec. 225.

21. Robbins, The Eighteenth-Century Commonwealthman . . . (Cambridge, Mass., 1959), 91. There are numerous references to Locke’s influence on Hutcheson’s political views. See, for example, Caroline Robbins, “ ‘When It is That Colonies may Turn Independent’: An Analysis of the Environment and Politics of Francis Hutcheson (1694–1746),” William and Mary Quarterly, 3d Ser., XI (1954), 21 4- 251, and William Robert Scott, Francis Hutcheson: His Life, Teaching and Position in the History of Philosophy (Cambridge, 1900), 231. Hutcheson himself acknowledged his debt to Locke’s politics: “Scarce any question of the law of nature and nations is not to be found in Grotius, Puffendorf, especially with Barbeyrac’s copious notes, Harrington, Lock [sic], or Bynkershoek” (A Short Introduction, iv).

22. Wills, Inventing America, 239.

23. Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, ed. L. A. Selby-Bigge (Oxford, 1888 [orig. publ. London, 1739]), 551.

24. Ibid., 557. Perhaps the best work on Hume’s political philosophy is Duncan Forbes, Hume’s Philosophical Politics (Cambridge, 1975).

25. Smith, Lectures on Jurisprudence, ed. R. L. Meek, D. D. Raphael, and P. G. Stein (Oxford, 1977), 72. For a discussion of Smith’s political views see Joseph Cropsey, “Adam Smith and Political Philosophy,” in Andrew S. Skinner and Thomas Wilson, eds., Essays on Adam Smith (Oxford, 1975), 132–153, and Donald Winch, Adam Smith’s Politics: An Essay in Historiographic Revision (Cambridge, 1978).

26. Smith, The Theory of M oral Sentiments . . . (London, 1853 [orig. publ. 1759]), 74.

27. Lundberg and May, “The Enlightened Reader in America,” American Quarterly, XXVIII (1976), 262–293.

28. Wills, Inventing America, 175.

29. Ibid., 171.

30. Jefferson to Robert Skipwith, Aug. 3, 1771, in Julian P. Boyd, ed., The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, I (Princeton, N.J., 1950), 78–80. Of the Scottish writers whom Wills claims were influential in shaping Jefferson’s thought, Jefferson recommended the following to Skipwith: under “Criticism on the Fine Arts,” (I) Henry Home, Lord Kames, Elements of Criticism, 1762, (2) Thomas Reid, An Inquiry into the Human Mind, 1764, (3) Adam Smith, Theory of’ Moral Sentiments, 1759; under “Religion,” (4) “Hume’s Essays, 4 v.” (probably Hume’ s Essays and Treatises on Several General Subjects, published in Edinburgh and London, 1753–1754, in four volumes), (5) Lord Kames, Essays on the Principles of Morality and Natural Religion, 1751; under “Law,” (6) Lord Kames, Principles of Equity, 1760; under “History, Modern,” (7) David Hume, History of England, 1754–1762.

31. Letter from Perkins, Buchanan, and Brown, Oct. 2, 1769, in Boyd, ed., Papers of Jefferson, I, 34.

32. Gilbert Chinard, ed., The Commonplace Book of Thollzas Jefferson: A Repertory of His Ideas on Government, Johns Hopkins Studies in Romance Literatures and Languages (Baltimore, 1926).

33. E. Millicent Sowerby, comp., Catalogue of the Library of Thomas Jefferson (Washington, D.C., 1952–1959), III, 12, item 2329. Wills’s comments on whether Jefferson possessed a copy of the Treatises in his library are totally misleading. He writes: “Jefferson listed the Second Treatise in his catalogue of books sold to the Library of Congress in 1815, but it does not show up in the list of books received. He could not have withheld the book, since Congress did not allow that, and it seems unlikely it would have been lost in the short time between his compilation of the catalogue and completion of the sale” (Inventing America, 174). Wills then suggests that it is an open question whether Jefferson ever owned the book after the Shadwell fire in 1770. Sowerby does not say that the Treatises were sold to Congress but were not received, as Wills implies by citing her at that point in his discussion. What she does say is that the Treatises appear in Jefferson’s manuscript catalogue compiled between 1783 and 1814, but that “no copy seems to have been sold to Congress by him” (Sowerby, comp., Catalogue, III, 12, item 2329). This is hardly significant, since over 200 other titles were listed by Jefferson in his manuscript catalogue which apparently were not sold to Congress, and a like number of titles not listed were, in fact, included in the sale. Sowerby, comp., Catalogue, passim.

Jefferson made no list of the books he sold to Congress. There is, however, a printed catalogue of 1815 prepared by George Watterston, the newly appointed librarian of Congress, and based on a “fair copy” of Jefferson’s catalogue made by Jefferson himself in 1812 but no longer extant. The Treatises do not appear in the Watterston catalogue. Sowerby, comp., Catalogue, V, 215–218, III, 12. Yet even if they did appear there, it would scarcely be notable, since a number of works, as Sowerby observes throughout her compilation, were listed as sold but probably not delivered. (Interestingly enough, these include Locke’s Conduct of the Mind in Search after Truth, in Sowerby, comp., Catalogue, II, 27.) The suggestion of illegality which Wills imputes to this has no foundation in fact, nor does his speculation that perhaps Jefferson’s original “sacred and undeniable” in his text of the Declaration. Wills

34. Sowerby, comp., Catalogue, V, 168.

35. Jefferson to Thomas Mann Randolph, May 30, 1790, in Andrew A. Lipscomb and Albert Ellery Bergh, eds., The Writings of Thomas Jefferson (Washington, D.C., 1904–1905), VIII, 31–32.

36. Jefferson to John Norvell, June 11,1807, ibid., XI, 222–223.

37. Transcript of the Minutes of the Board of Visitors of the University of Virginia, during the Rectorship of Thomas Jefferson, Mar. 4, 1825, ibid., XIX, 460–461.

38. Jefferson to Henry Lee, May 8, 1825, in Paul Leicester Ford, ed., The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, X (New York, 1899), 343. In commenting on this passage, which he erroneously dates to 1814, Wills finds it significant that “the only time Jefferson links Locke’s name with the Declaration, he is minimizing a connection first brought up by another” (Inventing America, 172). Inasmuch as Jefferson is here responding to a charge of having plagiarized from Locke in writing the Declaration, it is understandable that he would moderate his debt to Locke. What is far more significant for Wills’s thesis is that Jefferson did not choose to mention even one Scottish philosopher to whom he was indebted in shaping the ideas expressed in the document. Hutcheson, whose views on natural rights, property, the social contract, and the legitimacy of rebellion were very close to those of Locke and the Declaration, is conspicuously absent.

39. William Peden, “Some Notes concerning Thomas Jefferson’s Libraries,” WMQ, 3d Ser., I (1944), 265–272, esp. 270.

40. There is no significance to the fact that Jefferson owned copies of three of Hutcheson’s works when he sold his library to Congress in 1815. It is not known when these titles were acquired or whether they were even read by Jefferson.

41. Wills, Inventing America, 183–187.

42. Wilbur Samuel Howell, “The Declaration of Independence and Eighteenth-Century Logic,” WMQ, 3d Ser., XVIII (1961), 463–484, from which these quotations are taken (p. 474), shows that the reasoning of the Declaration is neatly framed along the lines laid out in Duncan’s Logick. See also Howell, “The Declaration of Independence: Some Adventures with America’s Political Masterpiece,” Quarterly Journal of Speech, LXII (1976), 221–233.

43. Wills, Inventing America, 370. In only one instance does Wills refer to an earlier draft. That is when he deals with the term “self-evident,” which replaced Jefferson’s original “sacred and undeniable” in his text of the Declaration. Wills holds that “undeniable” was an unfortunate choice of words since, as Reid emphasized, “the perverse can deny anything” (ibid., 237). There is not one whit of evidence that this textual change was made by Jefferson because of having read Thomas Reid. Indeed, there is no evidence that Jefferson was in any way influenced by Reid. Reid is mentioned only once in all of Jefferson’s writings; he possessed no works of Reid in the library he accumulated and catalogued between 1783 and 1814.

44. Locke, Second Treatise, sec. 5. Wills is wrong in claiming that “for Locke, the self-evident truth was a proposition whose subject and predicate’ have a relation of uncontestable identity” (Inventing America, 181). Locke explicitly permits other propositions, including those of relation, co-existence, and real existence, to fall within the category of self-evident statements (An Essay concerning Human Understanding, ed. Peter H. Nidditch [Oxford, 1975 (orig. publ. 1690)], 592). Among propositions of relation Locke mentions the relation of equality as a self-evident truth. See ibid., 594. Nor does Locke insist on the “barren infallibility” of intuitive self-evident propositions “to prevent their serving as the basis for deductions,” as Wills maintains (Inventing America, 181). See Locke, Essay concerning Human Understanding, ed. Nidditch, 530–531. Among such certain knowledge Locke includes the following fundamental principle: “If it be demanded, whether the grand seignior can lawfully take what he will from any of his people? This question cannot be resolved without coming to a certainty, whether all men are naturally equal” (Conduct of the Understanding, in The Works of John Locke, III [London, 1823], 283).

45. Locke, Second Treatise, sec. 4.

46. Wills makes the bizarre identification of “sovereignty over oneself’ in the state of nature with “a contract with oneself’ (Inventing America, 215).

47. Locke, Second Treatise, sees. 5, 6.

48. Wills, Inventing America, 215.

49. Ibid., 228.

50. Hutcheson, A Short Introduction, 143–144.

51. Wills, Inventing America, 231.

52. Hutcheson, System of Moral Philosophy, 340.

53. Ibid., 298.

54. Ibid., 293.

55. Ibid., 331.

56. Wills, Inventing America, 231.

57. Ibid., 251. The evidence that Jefferson’s source for the Declaration’s preamble—and its notion of the “pursuit of happiness”—was James Wilson’s Considerations On The Nature and The Extent Of The Legislative Authority of the British Parliament (Philadelphia, 1774), is at best inconclusive. Becker suggested that the Declaration “reminds us” of the passage in Wilson’s pamphlet in which the statement dealing with the ultimate end of government occurs (Declaration of Independence, 108). Gilbert Chinard, in noting that Jefferson had copied portions of Wilson into his Commonplace Book, observed that Jefferson “omitted the very passage which presents the most striking resemblance” (Thomas Jefferson: The Apostle of Americanism [Boston, 1929], 72). In any case, Chinard concluded, the date of entry of the passages from Wilson, “written probably sometime during the year 1776,” cannot be determined. Chinard, ed., Commonplace Book, 43.

A far more likely source of the sentiments expressed in the preamble—if indeed Jefferson can be said to have had a source more immediate than “the harmonizing sentiments of the day”—was George Mason’s draft of the first three articles of the Virginia Bill of Rights. (The draft is reproduced in Julian P. Boyd, The Declaration of Independence: The Evolution of the Text . . . [Princeton, N.J., 1945], 47–50.) Not only are Mason’s language and style of expression similar to Jefferson’s, but the logical structure of Mason’s argument accords perfectly with that offered in the Declaration. There is no question that Jefferson had seen Mason’s declaration of rights directly before composing the Declaration. See John C. Fitzpatrick, The Spirit of the Revolution: New Light from Some of the Original Sources of American History (Boston, 1924), 2–3; Chinard, Thomas Jefferson, 73–74; Boyd, Declaration of Independence, 15–16; and Malone, Jefferson and His Time, I, 221.

58. Wills, Inventing America, 244.

59. Hutcheson, Nature and Conduct of the Passions, 33.

60. Wills, Inventing America, 247.

61. Ibid., 251, 253.

62. Arthur M. Schlesinger adumbrated Wills’s explication of the term “pursuit of happiness” in a brief essay (“The Lost Meaning of ‘The Pursuit of Happiness,’ ” WMQ, 3d Ser., XXI [1964], 325–327), in which he held that the expression is to be understood in its more emphatic sense of making a test of governments whether they effect the happiness of their subjects. Chinard made a similar observation respecting the term as early as 1929, when he wrote: “I do not believe that any other State paper in any nation had ever proclaimed so emphatically and with such finality that one of the essential functions of government is to make men happy” (Thomas Jefferson, 75). Perhaps the most extreme statement of this interpretation has been offered by Charles M. Wiltse who noted of the term as used in the Declaration that “the happiness principle is undoubtedly the most significant feature of Jefferson’s theory of rights, for it raises government above the mere negative function of securing the individual against the encroachments of others. By recognizing a right to the pursuit of happiness, the state is committed to aid its citizens in the constructive task of obtaining their desires, whatever they may be” (The Jeffersonian Tradition in American Detnocracy [Chapel Hill, N.C., 1935], 70–71). Schlesinger’s analysis of the expression thus shades over into viewing the Declaration as expressing an anti-Lockean conception of government. For two such analyses see Vernon Louis Parrington, Main Currents in American Thought: An Interpretation of American Literature from the Beginnings to 1920, I: The Colonial Mind, 1620–1800 (New York, 1927), 343–344, and Ray Forrest Harvey, Jean Jacques Burlamaqui:A Liberal Tradition in American Constitutionalism (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1937), 119–122.

These interpretations all suffer from the same problems associated with that offered by Wills. All natural law theorists from Grotius on—including Burlamaqui—agreed that the ends of civil government limited the extent of political authority and that the individual transferred only such original rights as were necessary to achieve these ends. The pursuit of happiness, as used in the Declaration, is linked by Jefferson to the rights of individuals not so transferred, and not to the duties of government except insofar as governments are obligated to protect these rights. The rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are clearly stated as being anterior to the establishment of civil society and are inalienable. The logical structure and the political philosophy reflected in the Declaration simply do not support Schlesinger’s conclusions.

For a lengthy analysis of the treatment of this term by various commentators on the Declaration and for examples of its use during the 18th century see Herbert Lawrence Ganter, “Jefferson’s ‘Pursuit of Happiness’ and Some Forgotten Men,” WMQ, 2d Ser., XVI (1936), 422–434, 558–585.

63. Wills, Inventing America, ix.

64. Ibid., 176.

65. Boorstin, The Lost World of Thomas Jefferson (New York, 1948); Chinard, Jefferson et les Ideologues, Johns Hopkins Studies in Romance Literatures and Languages, I (Baltimore, 1925); Koch, The Philosophy of Thomas Jefferson (New York, 1943).

66. Wills, Inventing America, 168.

67. This is not to deny that there are elements of Scottish ethical theory in Jefferson’s thought. However, commentators have justly remarked that Jefferson was totally unsystematic in his thinking on moral questions. His statements in the area of ethics reflect elements of Stoicism, Epicureanism, moral sense theory, utilitarianism, and Christian idealism, or combinations of these. See, for example, Adrienne Koch, Philosophy of Thomas Jefferson, 2d ed. (Gloucester, Mass., 1957), 1–43. To the extent that it can be said that he adhered to a specific ethical doctrine, it is that all men possessed a moral sense that permits the perception of right and wrong, constitutes the obligation to act rightly, and is not reducible to reason although subject to alteration and improvement through the use of reason. But whether he regarded this moral faculty as irreducible (as in Shaftesbury), identifiable with conscience (as in Butler), motivated by benevolence (as in Hutcheson), the result of vibrations of an infinite beneficence (as in Hartley), activated by sympathy (as in Smith), or an intellectual and active power (as in Reid), Jefferson did not say.

68. Sowerby, comp., Catalogue, II, 12, item 1256.

69. Boyd ed., Papers of Jefferson, I, 423; emphasis added.

Ronald Hamowy was Research Fellow at The Independent Institute and Emeritus Professor of History at the University of Alberta in Canada.

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