Thomas Jefferson may well be the only president who promised to do less than his predecessors. What America needed, he said at his inauguration, was “a wise and frugal Government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned” (Thomas Jefferson: Writings, edited by Merrill D. Peterson [New York: Library of America, 1984], p. 494). The third president’s statement raised few eyebrows, in part because by 1801 he had earned fame as author of the Declaration of Independence—a document that, after all, focused on dispensing with an old regime rather than constructing a new one. In addition, the bulk of Jefferson’s audience agreed with him. The revolution that had unfolded a quarter-century earlier had aimed to establish self-government not only for the colonies but also for individual Americans.

So contends Hans L. Eicholz in this compelling new book, Harmonizing Sentiments. Whereas other recent scholars of the Declaration have examined it as rhetoric (Jay Fliegelman, Declaring Independence: Jefferson, Natural Language, and the Culture of Performance [Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1993]) or questioned its originality in order to depreciate its importance (Pauline Maier, American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence [New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997]), Eicholz shifts the debate from issues of political culture back to more traditional questions of political theory. The Declaration mattered a great deal, he maintains, because its words expressed widely accepted beliefs that originated with seventeenth-century English “Old Whigs who were opposed to the abuse of power and in favor of limited government” (p. 4). Unlike scholars who argue for the primacy of one intellectual tradition, however, Eicholz is quick to note that the ideas of the Declaration represent “a synthesis” of “rational self-interest” with “moral sense” philosophy and “the received wisdom of the common law”—all of which contributed to the revolutionary belief that “human order was not fundamentally the product of political mediation” (p. 72). Jefferson’s task was to express these harmonizing sentiments, and Eicholz believes he accomplished that task well.

After a brief introduction, Eicholz develops his argument in four meaty chapters. The first, which lays the groundwork by providing readers with a balanced history of the imperial crisis, contends that the American colonists’ perception of a plan to deprive them of individual rights and to usurp the powers of their legislatures focused attention on “the nature of power and its relation to liberty and society” (p. 9). The result was a “remarkable debate” between American loyalists, who concentrated on order rather than on liberty and anchored their arguments “almost exclusively on historical precedent,” and their revolutionary opponents, who “increasingly” combined “historical, customary, and constitutional arguments with assertions of natural law and natural rights” (p. 9). The maturation of the revolutionary mindset, spurred by the need to develop a compelling critique of parliamentary taxation, reflected a resurrection of the ideas of early Whigs such as John Locke and Algernon Sidney. These “older positions,” which “struggled to limit the power of the monarch on the basis of consent and its foundation in natural law” (p. 19), resonated well in the 1760s and 1770s, when the monarch sustained laws made by a Parliament over which Americans had no direct influence. As Rhode Islander Silas Downer wrote in 1768, it was a “Strange doctrine” that Americans “should be the subjects of subjects!” (p. 19).

Yet, as Eicholz emphasizes in his second chapter, which examines the thoughts revealed by the ratification and reception of the Declaration, more was at stake than the question of who made the laws. The Declaration’s rejection of parliamentary rule remained largely implicit because George III, the head of state, was assigned responsibility for his nation’s abuses of rights and usurpations of power. The king refused to assent to the colonists’ legislation, dissolved their legislatures, violated their constitutions, ignored their property rights, corrupted their judiciaries, made civil authority subservient to military power, and waged war against the British Americans whom the British government was obliged to protect. In charging the king with these crimes, the Declaration reflected the views expressed by most state declarations and most revolutionaries, who “saw reason, natural law—even divine law—and the constitutional history of England and America as ultimately complementary” (p. 42). These viewpoints coalesced, according to Eicholz, because Americans aimed “to affirm the importance of limiting power, preventing its consolidation, and extending liberty” (p. 42). Alterations by the Continental Congress—most of them stylistic—to Jefferson’s draft of the Declaration did nothing to mute his authorial voice on these points, a fact recognized by Thomas Hutchinson, the former Massachusetts governor who from England wrote to disparage the tract as nothing short of an invitation to anarchy.

Jefferson and his fellow revolutionaries disagreed with this assessment. By imposing strict limits on government power, Eicholz contends in his third (and most important, most original) chapter, they sought to empower the people to govern themselves. They viewed the ideas of classical writers, who stressed the need for virtue among leaders as a bulwark against corruption and tyranny as “quite compatible” (p. 78) with the concept of checks and balances within government, a more recent innovation of Whigs, who also embraced as “absolutely essential” John Locke’s theory of natural, individual rights (p. 80). Although some scholars see “deeply communitarian” (p. 83) implications in Jefferson’s revision of Locke’s trinity of “Life, Liberty, and Estates” as “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness,” Eicholz instead views it as an amplification of Locke’s belief that individuals in a state of nature possessed “a profound capacity for orderly exchange . . . promise keeping, and good faith” (p. 87). Happiness, after all, “was the product of man’s capacity for orderly social interaction, untainted by force or coercion. Misery was the product of man’s corruption by power and his physical abuse of others for personal gain” (p. 89). Believing that individuals’ natural moral impulses equipped them well for free exchange—for happiness—Jefferson also viewed individuals as well equipped for social interaction. Because Destutt de Tracy—the Frenchman whom Eicholz’s mentor, Joyce Appleby, has spotlighted as Jefferson’s favorite political economist—maintained that “commerce is society” (p. 100), Eicholz stands on firm ground when he argues that the goal of independence, at least as stated by Jefferson, was to establish a society of free individuals governed by enlightened self-interest more than by anything else. Social interaction, in other words, owes little to politics. These views belonged not only to Jefferson, Eicholz argues, but also to many others. As the draftsman of the Declaration informed Henry Lee in 1825, in writing the document he had aimed “at [neither] originality in principle [n]or sentiment.” He had intended merely to express “the American mind” (The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, 10 vols., edited by Paul L. Ford [New York, 1892–99], 10: 343).

In his fourth chapter, Eicholz maintains that the minds of many Americans had not changed at the time of the ratification of the Constitution. They remained fixed on the Whig principles of 1776—the insistence on an able government that operated within limits clearly determined by rights and precedent and that was clearly divided among the union, the states, and the people. Yet government under the Articles of Confederation violated these limits by, for example, pursuing an inflationary monetary policy that taxed, without explicit authorization, both the states’ and the people’s patience and pocket books. The Constitution of 1787 resulted, and although the subsequent ratification struggle divided Americans who subscribed to the Whig principles of the Declaration, it did not divide American support for the Declaration itself. Both Federalists and Anti-Federalists employed it to make their points.

This realization supplies an important caveat to recent scholarship that diminishes the Declaration as unoriginal, for Eicholz demonstrates that as a work of political theory, it was anything but unimportant in the eyes of Americans of the revolutionary and early national eras. How important, however, is it to us now? Eicholz believes that Americans are “no longer Jeffersonian.” Instead, they “have become more European in . . . political outlook.” Instead of negotiating freely to resolve their own problems, they seek collective, coerced, and political solutions. “Politics has trumped society,” Eicholz writes. “Though America began as Whig, it has become Tory” (p. 154). His important, suggestive, and provocative study of America’s intellectual origins makes convincing this chilling indictment of the modern American mind. The spirit of ’76 has been lost—and with it so much else.

Robert M. S. McDonald
United States Military Academy
American HistoryGovernment and PoliticsLaw and LibertyPolitical HistoryPolitical Theory