Liberty in America’s Founding Moment

July 3, 2015

From the Preface:

Earlier in my life I had no interest in either Thomas Jefferson or the Declaration of Independence. Who cared about early American historyanyway? But a change in American political discourse combined with a series of events in my life, and I found myself drawn irresistibly back to the Declaration and its author, Thomas Jefferson, to understand more about the vision with which America was founded. This was perhaps a natural transition in some sense for a historian of religion and religious studies scholar who spent a good part of his academic life studying religion. After all, the Declaration was the “American Scripture,” as Pauline Maier had so aptly called it. And I had already spent a good part of my adult life as an academic studying Judeo-Christian scriptures and their histories of interpretation. It was thus in some sense natural for me to turn to those texts that held mythic significance for Americans and to adopt some of the same skeptical and analytic techniques I had learned in the study of religion.

Yet what drew my attention to these early American texts was a growing awareness of and uneasiness with a new kind of political language that increasingly stressed the importance of individual rights to the exclusion of other values in America. Moreover, the increasingly emphatic language about government infringing individual rights often looked back to and justified itself in terms of the founding documents of early American history.  The Declaration of Independence often figured prominently in the stories that Americans were telling about their sacred rights and why those rights must never be infringed. In that story, individuals had rights that transcended government. And the Declaration was often the key document that proved that America had been founded with the vision of protecting our individual rights. I turned back to the Declaration and Thomas Jefferson to find out if this story was true.

Was it the case that America was founded with a vision of individual rights that transcended and always trumped other values, such as community, public good, and responsibility? Did the founders have a fully worked out theory of individual rights? Were individual rights the focus of what they meant by liberty? As I read the literature leading up to the Revolution and delved more into Jefferson’s own life and thought, I discovered, as I had suspected, that the answer was more complex.

There was no simple and straightforward notion of rights on which the founders agreed. Jefferson, like other writers in the founding period, had read John Locke and was familiar with Locke’s theory of natural rights. Most interpreters of Jefferson assumed he was espousing a theory of natural rights and perhaps even relying on John Locke in writing the Declaration of Independence. On that basis, the assumption is often made that America was founded with a vision of natural rights that reaches back to and can be understood in terms of John Locke’s Second Treatise on Government. But as I discovered, the founders, including Jefferson, had doubts about Locke’s notion that government was founded in social contract and had been influenced by other streams of thought that made Locke’s ideas about natural rights problematic. These doubts about natural rights led the founders to disagree on which theory of rights actually justified the American Revolution and the War of Independence. These doubts and disagreements, however, are often missing in the histories and stories that are normally told about Jefferson and the Declaration.

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Table of Contents

Introduction. On Natural Rights, History, and the American Founding
Part I: The Declaration and Jefferson’s Alternative Theory of American Rights
1. The Declaration, Locke, and Conflicts about Natural Rights
2. Jefferson’s_Declarations_of_Independence

Part II
3. Early Doubts about Natural Rights Before the Revolution
4. …

Conclusion: Does It Matter What the Declaration Means?