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THE DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE ( as it reads in the parchment copy .) - Carl Lotus Becker, The Declaration of Independence: A Study on the History of Political Ideas 
The Declaration of Independence: A Study on the History of Political Ideas (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1922).
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THE DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE
The Unanimous Declaration of the Thirteen United States of America.
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. — 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. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That 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 its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, 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, and to provide new Guards for their future security. — Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world. — He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good. — He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his Assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them. — He has refused to pass other Laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of Representation in the Legislature, a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only. — He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures. — He has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people. — He has refused for a long time, after such dissolutions, to cause others to be elected; whereby the Legislative powers, incapable of Annihilation, have returned to the People at large for their exercise; the State remaining in the meantime exposed to all the dangers of invasion from without, and convulsions within. — He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands. — He has obstructed the Administration of Justice, by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary powers. — He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone, for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries. — He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harrass our people, and eat out their substance. — He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures. — He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil power. — He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation. — For quartering large bodies of armed troops among us: — For protecting them, by a mock Trial, from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States: — For cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world: — For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent: — For depriving us in many cases, of the benefits of Trial by Jury: — For transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offenses: — For abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighboring Province, establishing therein an Arbitrary government, and enlarging its Boundaries so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule into these Colonies: — For taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws, and altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments: — For suspending our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever. — He has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us. — He has plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people. — He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation. — He has constrained our fellow Citizens taken Captive on the high Seas to bear Arms against their Country, to become the executioners of their friends and Brethren, or to fall themselves by their Hands. — He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions. In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people. Nor have We been wanting in attentions to our Brittish brethren.We have warned them from time to time of attempts by their legislature to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us. We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here. We have appealed to their native justice and magnanimity, and we have conjured them by the ties of our common kindred to disavow these usurpations, which would inevitably interrupt our connections and correspondence. They too have been deaf to the voice of justice and of consanguinity. We must, therefore, acquiesce in the necessity, which denounces our Separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace Friends. —
We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. — And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.
The signatures on the parchment copy, of which only a few are now legible, are given below.
THE LITERARY QUALITIES OF THE DECLARATION
Jefferson was chosen to draft the Declaration because he was known to possess a “masterly pen.” There were perhaps other reasons, but this was the chief one. When he came to Congress in 1775, “he brought with him,” says John Adams, “a.reputation for literature, science, and a happy talent for composition. Writings of his were handed about remarkable for the peculiar felicity of expression.”1Peculiar felicity of expression — the very words which one would perhaps choose to sum up the distinguishing characteristics of Jefferson’s style.
Like many men who write with felicity, Jefferson was no orator.He rarely, if ever, made a speech. “During the whole time I sat with him in Congress,” John Adams says, “I never heard him utter three sentences together” — that is, on the floor of Congress; in committees and in conversation he was, on the contrary, “prompt, frank, explicit, and decisive.”1 It might seem that a man who can write effectively should be able to speak effectively. It sometimes happens. But one whose ear is sensitive to the subtler, elusive harmonies of expression, one who in imagination hears the pitch and cadence and rhythm of the thing he wishes to say before he says it, often makes a sad business of public speaking because, painfully aware of the imperfect felicity of what has been uttered, he forgets what he ought to say next. He instinctively wishes to cross out what he has just said, and say it over again in a different way — and this is what he often does, to the confusion of the audience. In writing he can cross out and rewrite at leisure, as often as he likes, until the sound and the sense are perfectly suited — until the thing composes. The reader sees only the finished draft.
Not that Jefferson wrote with difficulty, constructing his sentences with slow and painful effort. One who, as an incident to a busy public career, wrote so much and so well, must have written with ease and rapidity. But Jefferson, as the original drafts of his papers show, revised and corrected his writings with care, seeking, yet without wearing his soul threadbare in the search, for the better word, the happier phrase, the smoother transition. His style has not indeed the achieved perfection, the impeccable surface, of that of a master-craftsman like Flaubert, or Walter Pater; but neither has it the objectivity, the impersonal frigidity of writing that is perhaps too curiously and deliberately integrated, too consciously made. Having something to say, he says it, with as much art as may be, yet not solely for the art’s sake, aiming rather at the ease, the simplicity, the genial urbanity of cultivated conversation. The grace and felicity of his style have a distinctly personal flavor, something Jeffersonian in the implication of the idea, or in the beat and measure of the words. Franklin had equal ease, simplicity, felicity; but no one who knows the writings of Franklin could attribute the Declaration to him. Jefferson communicated an undefinable yet distinctive quality to the Declaration which makes it his.
The Declaration is filled with these felicities of phrase which bear the stamp of Jefferson’s mind and temperament: a decent respect to the opinions of mankind; more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed; for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures; sent hither swarms of officers to harrass our people and eat out their substance; hold them as we hold the rest of mankind, enemies in war, in peace friends. There are some sentences in the Declaration which are more than felicitous. The closing sentence, for example, is perfection itself. Congress amended the sentence by including the phrase, “with a firm reliance upon the protection of divine Providence.” It may be that Providence always welcomes the responsibilities thrust upon it in times of war and revolution; but personally, I like the sentence better as Jefferson wrote it. “And for the support of this Declaration we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.” It is true (assuming that men value life more than property, which is doubtful) that the statement violates the rhetorical rule of climax; but it was a sure sense that made Jefferson place ‘lives’ first and ‘fortunes’ second. How much weaker if he had written “our fortunes, our lives, and our sacred honor”! Or suppose him to have used the word ‘property’ instead of ‘fortunes!’ Or suppose him to have omitted ’sacred!’ Consider the effect of omitting any of the words, such as the last two ‘ours’ — “our lives, fortunes, and sacred honor.” No, the sentence can hardly be improved.
There are probably more of these Jeffersonian felicities in the Declaration than in any other writing by him of equal length. Jefferson realized that, if the colonies won their independence, this would prove to be a public document of supreme importance; and the Rough Draft (which may not be the first one) bears ample evidence of his search for the right word, the right phrasing. In the opening sentence, not at all bad as it originally stood, there are four corrections. The first part of the second paragraph seems to have given him much trouble. The Rough Draft reads as follows:
We hold these truths to be self-evident sacred & undeniable; that all men are created equal & independent; that they are endowed by their from that equal creation they derive in rights creator with equal rights some of which are inherent & inalienable rights; that among which these are the preservation of life, & liberty, & the pursuit of happiness.
When Jefferson submitted the draft to Adams the only correction which he had made was to write ’self-evident’ in place of ’sacred & undeniable.’ It is interesting to guess why, on a later reading, the other changes were made. I suspect that he erased ‘& independent’ because, having introduced ’self-evident,’ he did not like the sound of the two phrases both closing with ‘dent.’ The phrase ‘they are endowed by their creator’ is obviously much better than ‘from that equal creation’; but this correction, as he first wrote it, left an awkward wording: ‘that they are endowed by their creator with equal rights some of which are inherent & inalienable among which are.’ Too many ‘which ares’; and besides, why suppose that some rights given by the creator were inherent and some not? Thus we get the form, which is so much stronger, as well as more agreeable to the ear: ‘that they are endowed by their creator with inherent & inalienable rights.’ Finally, why say ‘the preservation of life’? If a man has a right to life, the right to preserve life is manifestly included.
Again, take the close of the last paragraph but one. The Rough Draft gives the following reading:
The road to glory & happiness & to glory is open to us too; we will climb must tread it in a separately state. apart from them
The phrase ‘to happiness & to glory’ is better than ‘to glory & happiness.’ Placing “glory” before “happiness” might imply that the first aim of the colonists was glory, and that their happiness would come as an incident to the achievement of glory. What needed to be expressed was the idea that the colonists were defending the natural right to happiness, and that the vindication of this inherent human right would confer glory upon them. Did Jefferson, in making the change, reason thus? Probably not. Upon reading it over he doubtless instinctively felt that by placing ‘happiness’ first and repeating the ‘to’ he would take the flatness out of a prosaic phrase. As for the latter part of the sentence, Jefferson evidently first wrote it: ‘climb it in a separate state.’ Not liking the word “state,” he erased ’state’ and ‘in a’ and added ‘-ly’ to ’separate’: so that it read: ‘we will climb it separately.’ But no, on second thought, that is not much better. ‘Climb it apart from them’—that would do. So apparently it read when the Declaration was adopted, since ‘climb’ and not ‘tread’ is the reading of all but one of the copies, including the text finally adopted. It may be that Jefferson made the change during the debates in Congress, and then thought better of it, or neglected to get the change incorporated in the final text. There is another correction in the Rough Draft which does not appear in the final form of the Declaration. “Our repeated petitions have been answered only by repeated injury” — so the Declaration reads; but in the Rough Draft the ‘injury’ has been changed to ‘injuries.’ This is manifestly better; and as one can hardly suppose Congress would have preferred ‘injury’ to ‘injuries,’ it is probable that the change was made after the Declaration was adopted. Jefferson had something of the artist’s love of perfection for its own sake, the writer’s habit of correcting a manuscript even after it has been published.
Apart from the peculiar felicities of phrasing, what strikes one particularly in reading the Declaration as a whole is the absence of declamation. Everything considered, the Declaration is brief, free of verbiage, a model of clear, concise, and simple statement. In 1856 Rufus Choate referred to it as “that passionate and eloquent manifesto,” made up of “glittering and sounding generalities of natural right.”1 Eloquent the Declaration frequently is, in virtue of a certain high seriousness with which Jefferson contrived to invest what was ostensibly a direct and simple statement of fact. Of all words in the language, ‘passionate’ is the one which is least applicable to Jefferson or to his writings. As to ‘generalities,’ the Declaration contains relatively few; and if those few are ‘glittering and sounding’ it is in their substance and not in their form that they are so. You may not believe
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; that to secure these rights governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed; that 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 its foundations on such principles, and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.
You may not believe this; but if you do believe it, as Jefferson and his contemporaries did, you would find it difficult to say it more concisely; in words more direct, simple, precise, and appropriate; with less of passionate declamation, of rhetorical magniloquence, or of verbal ornament. The second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence reminds one of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address in its unimpassioned simplicity of statement. It glitters as much, or as little, as that famous document.
Logical sequence and structural unity are not always essential to good writing; but the rambling and discursive method would scarcely be appropriate to a declaration of independence. Jefferson’s declaration, read casually, seems not to possess a high degree of unity. Superficially considered, it might easily strike one as the result of an uneasy marriage of convenience between an abstract philosophy of government and certain concrete political grievances. But in truth the Declaration is built up around a single idea, and its various parts are admirably chosen and skilfully disposed for the production of a particular effect. The grievances against the king occupy so much space that one is apt to think of them as the main theme. Such is not the case. The primary purpose of the Declaration was to convince a candid world that the colonies had a moral and legal right to separate from Great Britain. This would be difficult to do, however many and serious their grievances might be, if the candid world was to suppose that the colonies were politically subordinate to the British government in the ordinary sense. It is difficult to justify rebellion against established political authority. Accordingly, the idea around which Jefferson built the Declaration was that the colonists were not rebels against established political authority, but a free people maintaining long established and imprescriptible rights against a usurping king. The effect which he wished to produce was to leave a candid world wondering why the colonies had so long submitted to the oppressions of this king.
The major premise from which this conclusion is derived is that every ‘people’ has a natural right to make and unmake its own government; the minor premise is that the Americans are a ‘people’ in this sense. In establishing themselves in America, the people of the colonies exercised their natural rights to frame governments suited to their ideas and conditions; but at the same time they voluntarily retained a union with the people of Great Britain by professing allegiance to the same king. From this allegiance they might at any time have withdrawn; if they had not so withdrawn it was because of the advantages of being associated with the people of Great Britain; if they now proposed to withdraw, it was not because they now any less than formerly desired to maintain the ancient association, but because the king by repeated and deliberate actions had endeavored to usurp an absolute authority over them contrary to every natural right and to long established custom. The minor premise of the argument is easily overlooked because it is not explicitly stated in the Declaration — at least not in its final form. To have stated it explicitly would perhaps have been to bring into too glaring a light certain incongruities between the assumed premise and known historical facts. The rôle of the list of grievances against the king is to make the assumed premise emerge, of its own accord as it were, from a carefully formulated but apparently straightforward statement of concrete historical events. From the point of view of structural unity, the rôle which the list of grievances plays in the Declaration is a subordinate one; its part is to exhibit the historical circumstances under which the colonists, as a ‘free people,’ had thrust upon them the high obligation of defending the imprescriptible rights of all men.
Although occupying a subordinate place in the logical structure, the list of grievances is of the highest importance in respect to the total effect which the Declaration aims to produce. From this point of view, the form and substance of these paragraphs constitute not the least masterly part of the Declaration. It is true, books upon rhetoric warn the candidate for literary honors at all hazards to avoid monotony; he ought, they say, to seek a pleasing variety by alternating long and short sentences; and while they consider it correct to develop a single idea in each paragraph, they consider it inadvisable to make more than one paragraph out of a single sentence. These are no doubt good rules, for writing in general; but Jefferson violated them all, perhaps because he was writing something in particular. Of set purpose, throughout this part of the Declaration, he began each charge against the king with ‘he has’: ‘he has refused his assent’; ‘he has forbidden his governors’; ‘he has refused to pass laws’; ‘he has called together legislative bodies’; ‘he has refused for a long time.’ As if fearing that the reader might not after all notice this oft-repeated ‘he has,’ Jefferson made it still more conspicuous by beginning a new paragraph with each ‘he has.’ To perform thus is not to be ‘literary’ in a genteel sense; but for the particular purpose of drawing an indictment against the king it served very well indeed. Nothing could be more effective than these brief, crisp sentences, each one the bare affirmation of a malevolent act. Keep your mind on the king, Jefferson seems to say; he is the man: ‘he has refused’; ‘he has forbidden’; ‘he has combined’; ‘he has incited’; ‘he has plundered’; ‘he has abdicated.’ I will say he has.
These hard, incisive sentences are all the more effective as an indictment of the king because of the sharp contrast between them and the paragraphs, immediately preceding and following, in which Jefferson touches upon the sad state of the colonists. In these paragraphs there is something in the carefully chosen words, something in the falling cadence of the sentences, that conveys a mournful, almost a funereal, sense of evils apprehended and long forefended but now unhappily realized. Consider the phrases which give tone and pitch to the first two paragraphs: ‘when in the course of human events’; ‘decent respect to the opinions of mankind’; ‘all experience hath shewn’; ’suffer while evils are sufferable’; ‘forms to which they are accustomed’; ‘patient sufferance of these colonies’; ‘no solitary fact to contradict the uniform tenor of the rest.’ Such phrases skilfully disposed have this result, that the opening passages of the Declaration give one the sense of fateful things impending, of hopes defeated and injuries sustained with unavailing fortitude. The contrast in manner is accentuated by the fact that whereas the king is represented as exclusively aggressive, the colonists are represented as essentially submissive. In this drama the king alone acts — he conspires, incites, plunders; the colonists have the passive part, never lifting a hand to burn stamps or destroy tea; they suffer while evils are sufferable. It is a high literary merit of the Declaration that by subtle contrasts Jefferson contrives to conjure up for us a vision of the virtuous and long-suffering colonists standing like martyrs to receive on their defenseless heads the ceaseless blows of the tyrant’s hand.
Like many men with a sense for style, Jefferson, although much given to polishing and correcting his own manuscripts, did not always welcome changes which others might make. Congress discussed his draft for three successive days. What uncomplimentary remarks the members may have made is not known; but it is known that in the end certain paragraphs were greatly changed and others omitted altogether. These ‘depredations’ — so he speaks of them — Jefferson did not enjoy: but we may easily console ourselves for his discomfiture since it moved the humane Franklin to tell him a story. Writing in 1818, Jefferson says:
I was sitting by Dr. Franklin, who perceived that I was not insensible to these mutilations. ‘I have made it a rule,’ said he, ‘whenever in my power, to avoid becoming the draughtsman of papers to be reviewed by a public body. I took my lesson from an incident which I will relate to you. When I was a journeyman printer, one of my companions, an apprentice Hatter, having served out his time, was about to open shop for himself. His first concern was to have a handsome signboard, with a proper inscription. He composed it in these words: ‘John Thompson, Hatter, makes and sells hats for ready money,’ with a figure of a hat subjoined. But he thought he would submit it to his friends for their amendments. The first he shewed it to thought the word ‘hatter’ tautologous, because followed by the words ‘makes hats’ which shew he was a hatter. It was struck out. The next observed that the word ‘makes’ might as well be omitted, because his customers would not care who made the hats. If good and to their mind, they would buy, by whomsoever made. He struck it out. A third said he thought the words ‘for ready money’ were useless as it was not the custom of the place to sell on credit. Every one who purchased expected to pay. They were parted with, and the inscription now stood ‘John Thompson sells hats.’ ‘Sells hats’ says his next friend? Why nobody will expect you to give them away. What then is the use of that word? It was stricken out, and ‘hats’ followed it, the rather, as there was one painted on the board. So his inscription was reduced ultimately to ‘John Thompson’ with the figure of a hat subjoined.’1
Jefferson’s colleagues were not so ruthless as the friends of John Thompson; and on the whole it must be said that Congress left the Declaration better than it found it. The few verbal changes that were made improved the phraseology, I am inclined to think, in every case. Where Jefferson wrote: “He has erected a multitude of new offices by a self-assumed power, and sent hither swarms of officers to harrass our people and eat out their substance,” Congress cut out the phrase, “by a self-assumed power.” Again, Jefferson’s sentence, “He has abdicated government here, with-drawing his governors, and declaring us out of his allegiance and protection,” Congress changed to read, “He has abdicated government here by declaring us out of his protection and waging war against us.” Is not the phraseology of Congress, in both cases, more incisive, and does it not thus add something to that very effect which Jefferson himself wished to produce?
Aside from merely verbal changes, Congress rewrote the final paragraph, cut out the greater part of the paragraph next to the last, and omitted altogether the last of Jefferson’s charges against the king. The final paragraph as it stands is certainly much stronger than in its original form. The Declaration was greatly strengthened by using, for the renunciation of allegiance, the very phraseology of the resolution of July 2, by which Congress had officially decreed that independence which it was the function of the Declaration to justify. It was no doubt for this reason mainly that Congress rewrote the paragraph; but the revision had in addition the merit of giving to the final paragraph, what such a paragraph especially needed, greater directness and assurance. In its final form, the Declaration closes with the air of accepting the issue with confident decision.
In cutting out the greater part of the next to the last paragraph, Congress omitted, among other things, the sentence in which Jefferson formulated, not directly indeed but by allusion, that theory of the constitutional relation of the colonies to Great Britain which is elsewhere taken for granted: “We have reminded them [our British brethren]. . . that in constituting indeed our several forms of government, we had adopted one common king; thereby laying a foundation for perpetual league and amity with them; but that submission to their parliament was no part of our constitution, nor ever in idea, if history may be credited.” Perhaps the Declaration would have been strengthened by including an explicit formulation of this theory. But if the theory was to be expressly formulated at all, Jefferson was unfortunate both in the form and in the order of the statement. Unfortunate in the form, which is allusive, and in the last phrase ambiguous — “Nor ever in idea, if history may be credited.” Unfortunate in the order, because, if the theory was to be expressly formulated at all, its formulation should manifestly have preceded the list of charges against the king. In general, this paragraph, as originally written, leaves one with the feeling that the author, not quite aware that he is done, is beginning over again. In the form adopted, it is an admirable brief prelude to the closing paragraph.
The last of Jefferson’s charges against the king was what John Adams called the “vehement philippic against negro slavery.”1
He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. This piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the Christian king of Great Britain. Determined to keep open a market where MEN should be bought and sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce; and that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die, he is now exciting these very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he deprived them, by murdering the people upon whom he also obtruded them; thus paying off former crimes committed against the liberties of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another.
Congress omitted this passage altogether. I am glad it did. One does not expect a declaration of independence to represent historical events with the objectivity and exactitude of a scientific treatise; but here the discrepancy between the fact and the representation is too flagrant. Expecially, in view of the subsequent history of the slave trade, and of slavery itself, without which there would have been no slave trade, these charges against the king lose whatever plausibility, slight enough at best, they may have had at the time. But I have quoted this passage in full once more, not on account of its substance but on account of its form, which is interesting, and peculiarly significant in its bearing upon Jefferson’s qualities and limitations as a writer. John Adams thought it one of the best parts of the Declaration. It is possible that Jefferson thought so too. He evidently gave much attention to the wording of it. But to me, even assuming the charges against the king to be true, it is the part of the Declaration in which Jefferson conspicuously failed to achieve literary excellence.
The reason is, I think, that in this passage Jefferson attempted something which he was temperamentally unfitted to achieve. The passage was to have been the climax of the charges against the king; on its own showing of facts it imputes to him the most inhuman acts, the basest motives; its purpose, one supposes, is to stir the reader’s emotions, to make him feel a righteous indignation at the king’s acts, a profound contempt for the man and his motives. Well, the passage is clear, precise, carefully balanced. It employs the most tremendous words — “murder,” “piratical warfare,” “prostituted,” “miserable death.” But in spite of every effort, the passage somehow leaves us cold; it remains, like all of Jefferson’s writing, calm and quiescent; it lacks warmth; it fails to lift us out of our equanimity. There is in it even (something rare indeed in Jefferson’s writings) a sense of labored effort, of deliberate striving for an effect that does not come.
This curious effect, or lack of effect, is partly due to the fact that the king’s base actions are presented to us in abstract terms. We are not permitted to see George III. George III does not repeal a statute of South Carolina in order that Sambo may be sold at the port of Charleston. No, the Christian king wages “cruel war against human nature,” he prostitutes “his negative for the suppression of every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce.” We have never a glimpse of poor dumb negroes gasping for breath in the foul hold of a transport ship, or driven with whips like cattle to labor in a fetid rice swamp; what we see is human nature, and the “violation of its most sacred rights in the persons of a distant people.” The thin vision of things in the abstract rarely reaches the sympathies. Few things are less moving than to gaze upon the concept of miserable death, and it is possible to contemplate “an assemblage of horrors that wants no fact of distinguished die” without much righteous indignation.
Yet the real reason lies deeper. It is of course quite possible to invest a generalized statement with an emotional quality. Consider the famous passage from Lincoln’s second Inaugural:
Fondly do we hope — fervently do we pray — that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn by the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said, “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”
Compare this with Jefferson’s
And that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die, he is now exciting these very people to rise in arms against us, and to purchase that liberty of which he deprived them, by murdering the people upon whom he also obtruded them; thus paying off former crimes committed against the liberties of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another.
Making every allowance for difference in subject and in occasion, these passages differ as light differs from darkness. There is a quality of deep feeling about the first, an indefinable something which is profoundly moving; and this something, which informs and enriches much of Lincoln’s writing, is rarely, almost never present in the writing of Jefferson.
This something, which Jefferson lacked but which Lincoln possessed in full measure, may perhaps for want of a better term be called a profoundly emotional apprehension of experience. One might say that Jefferson felt with the mind, as some people think with the heart. He had enthusiasm, but it was enthusiasm engendered by an irrepressible intellectual curiosity. He was ardent, but his ardors were cool, giving forth light without heat. One never feels with Jefferson, as one does with Washington, that his restraint is the effect of a powerful will persistently holding down a profoundly passionate nature. One has every confidence that Jefferson will never lose control of himself, will never give way to purifying rage, relieving his overwrought feelings by an outburst of divine swearing. All his ideas and sentiments seem of easy birth, flowing felicitously from an alert and expeditious brain rather than slowly and painfully welling up from the obscure depths of his nature. “I looked for gravity,” says Maclay, giving his first impressions of Jefferson, “but a laxity of manner seemed shed about him. He spoke almost without ceasing; but even his discourse partook of his personal demeanor. It was loose and rambling; and yet he scattered information wherever he went, and some even brilliant sentiments sparkled from him.”
Jefferson’s writing is much like that — a ceaseless flow, sparkling, often brilliant, a kind of easy improvisation. There are in his writings few of those ominous overtones charged with emotion, and implying more than is expressed. Sometimes, indeed, by virtue of a certain facility, a certain complacent optimism, by virtue of saying disputed things in such a pleasant way, his words imply even less than they mean. When, for example, Jefferson says “the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants,” so far from making us shudder, he contrives to throw about this unlovely picture a kind of arcadian charm. You will hardly think of Jefferson, with lifted hand and vibrant voice, in the heat of emotion striking off the tremendous sentence, “Give me liberty or give me death!” I can imagine him saying, “Manly spirit bids us choose to die freemen rather than to live slaves.” The words would scarcely lift us out of our seats, however we might applaud the orator for his peculiar felicity of expression.
Felicity of expression — certainly Jefferson had that; but one wonders whether he did not perhaps have too much of it. This sustained felicity gives one at times a certain feeling of insecurity, as of resting one’s weight on something fragile. Jefferson’s placidity, the complacent optimism of his sentiments and ideas, carry him at times perilously near the fatuous. One would like more evidence that the iron had some time or other entered his soul, more evidence of his having profoundly reflected upon the enigma of existence, of having more deeply felt its tragic import, of having won his convictions and his optimisms and his felicities at the expense of some painful travail of the spirit. What saved Jefferson from futility was of course his clear, alert intelligence, his insatiable curiosity, his rarely failing candor, his loyalty to ideas, his humane sympathies. Yet we feel that his convictions, his sympathies, his ideas are essentially of the intellect, somehow curiously abstracted from reality, a consciously woven drapery laid over the surface of a nature essentially aristocratic, essentially fastidious, instinctively shrinking from close contact with men and things as they are.
Not without reason was Jefferson most at home in Paris. By the qualities of his mind and temperament he really belonged to the philosophical school, to the Encyclopaedists, those generous souls who loved mankind by virtue of not knowing too much about men, who worshipped reason with unreasoning faith, who made a religion of Nature while cultivating a studied aversion for ‘enthusiasm,’ and strong religious emotion. Like them, Jefferson, in his earlier years especially, impresses one as being a radical by profession. We often feel that he defends certain practices and ideas, that he denounces certain customs or institutions, not so much from independent reflection or deep-seated conviction on the particular matter in hand as because in general these are the things that a philosopher and a man of virtue ought naturally to defend or denounce. It belonged to the eighteenth-century philosopher, as a matter of course, to apostrophize Nature, to defend Liberty, to denounce Tyranny, perchance to shed tears at the thought of a virtuous action. It was always in character for him to feel the degradation of Human Nature when confronted with the idea of Negro Slavery.
This academic accent, as of ideas and sentiments belonging to a system, of ideas uncriticized and sentiments no more than conventionally felt, is what gives a labored and perfunctory effect to Jefferson’s famous ‘philippic against Negro slavery.’ Adams described it better than he knew. It is indeed a philippic; it is indeed vehement; but it is not moving. It is such a piece as would be expected of a ‘philosopher’ on such an occasion. We remain calm in reading it because Jefferson, one cannot but think, remained calm in writing it. For want of phrases charged with deep feeling, he resorts to italics, vainly endeavoring to stir the reader by capitalizing and underlining the words that need to be stressed — a futile device, which serves only to accentuate the sense of artifice and effort, and, in the case of ‘the Christian king of Great Britain,’ introduces the wholly incongruous note of snarling sarcasm, reminding us for all the world of Shylock’s ‘these be the Christian husbands.’ Jefferson apprehended the injustice of slavery; but one is inclined to ask how deeply he felt it.
It may be said that Jefferson touches the emotions as little in other parts of the Declaration as in the philippic on slavery. That is in great measure true; but in the other parts of the Declaration, which have to do for the most part with an exposition of the constitutional rights of the colonies, or with a categorical statement of the king’s violations of these rights, the appeal is more properly to the mind than to the heart; and it was in appealing to the reader’s mind, of course, that Jefferson was at his best. Taking the Declaration as a whole, this is indeed its conspicuous quality: it states clearly, reasons lucidly, exposes felicitously; its high virtue is in this, that it makes a strong bid for the reader’s assent. But it was beyond the power of Jefferson to impregnate the Declaration with qualities that would give to the reader’s assent the moving force of profound conviction. With all its precision, its concise rapidity, its clarity, its subtle implications and engaging felicities, one misses a certain unsophisticated directness, a certain sense of impregnable solidity and massive strength, a certain effect of passion restrained and deep convictions held in reserve, which would have given to it that accent of perfect sincerity and that emotional content which belong to the grand manner.
The Declaration has not the grand manner — that passion under control which lifts prose to the level of true poetry. Yet it has, what is the next best thing, a quality which saves it from falling to the prosaic. It has elevation. I have said that Franklin had, equally with Jefferson, clarity, simplicity, precision, felicity. If Franklin had written the Declaration it would have had all of these qualities; but Franklin would have communicated to it something homely and intimate and confidential, some smell of homespun, some air of the tavern or the print shop. Franklin could not, I think, have written this sentence:
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.
Or this one:
Prudence indeed will dictate that governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.
And for the support of this declaration we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.
These sentences may not be quite in the grand manner; but they have a high seriousness, a kind of lofty pathos which at least lift the Declaration to the level of a great occasion. These qualities Jefferson was able to communicate to his writing by virtue of possessing a nature exquisitely sensitive, and a mind finely tempered; they illustrate, in its subtler forms, what John Adams called his ‘peculiar felicity of expression.’
THE PHILOSOPHY OF THE DECLARATION IN THE NINTEENTH CENTURY
Professor Moses Coit Tyler, in his admirable Literary History of the American Revolution, takes occasion to remark that “whatever authority the Declaration has acquired in the world has been due to no lack of criticism” — that is to say, of adverse criticism.
From the date of its original publication down to the present moment, it has been attacked again and again, either in anger or in contempt, by friends as well as by enemies of the American Revolution, by liberals in politics as well as by conservatives. It has been censured for its substance, it has been censured for its form; for its misstatements of fact, for its fallacies in reasoning; for its audacious novelties and paradoxes, for its total lack of all novelty, for its repetition of old and threadbare statements, even for its downright plagiarisms; finally, for its grandiose and vaporing style.1
A document against which so much diverse criticism has been directed at least enjoys the merit of not having been forgotten.
If the Declaration has not been forgotten, if it has been much criticized, much denounced and much applauded, if it has never lacked ‘friends’ or ‘enemies,’ no doubt one essential reason is that it was an event, or at least the chief symbol of an event of surpassing historical importance, as well as a literary document which set forth in classic form a particular philosophy of politics. In the Declaration the foundation of the United States is indissolubly associated with a theory of politics, a philosophy of human rights which is valid, if at all, not for Americans only, but for all men. This association gives the Declaration its perennial interest. The verdict of history constrained men to approve of the independence of the United States, or at least to accept it as an accomplished fact; the accomplished fact conferred upon the Declaration a distinction, a fame, which could not be ignored, and gave to its philosophy of human rights the support of a concrete historical example. There they were, and there they remained — stubborn fact married to uncompromising theory; bound for life; jogging along in discord or in harmony as might happen; an inspiration or a scandal to half the world, but in any case impossible to be ignored, with difficulty to be accepted or rejected the one without the other.
During the Revolution, as a matter of course, men were chiefly interested in the fact that the colonists had taken the decisive step of separating from Great Britain; the practical effect of taking this step, at this time, rather than the form, or even the substance, of the Declaration itself, was what chiefly engaged their attention. Warm patriots accepted its political philosophy as a commonplace; and for the most part they found the Declaration admirable, both in form and substance, because they believed that the act which it celebrated would have good practical results. “The Declaration will give a new spring to all our affairs,” Samuel Cooper wrote, thus expressing in a phrase the gist of contemporary patriot comment.1 Those who were ready for a declaration of independence readily accepted the Declaration of Independence. They were not disposed to judge it objectively — or, for that matter, to allow others to do so: “I hope,” Mr. Whipple wrote to a friend, “you will take care that the Declaration is properly treated.” For men engaged in a life and death struggle, the main point of interest was that the official justification of their endeavor, however formulated, should be ‘properly treated’ by being heartily approved.
The enemies of the Revolution, with minds similarly obedient to their interests, found the Declaration bad because they deplored the event which it symbolized. American Loyalist opinion was voiced by Thomas Hutchinson, then an exile in England, in a “Letter to a Noble Lord.” Systematic by temperament and habit, Hutchinson quoted and commented upon the Declaration paragraph by paragraph. Of its general philosophy, he said little, thinking it sufficient to point out a certain discrepancy between the theory which proclaimed all men equal and the practice which deprived “more than a hundred thousand Africans of their rights to liberty.” Nearly the whole of his pamphlet Hutchinson devoted to refuting the charges against the king. His long experience as administrator, his wide and exact knowledge of British and colonial history, enabled him to subject the statements in the Declaration to a minute and searching analysis, and to prove, past a doubt to those who were already predisposed to agree with him, that the charges against the king were “false and frivolous” — absurd in logic and without foundation in fact.1
Hutchinson expressed the views not only of American Loyalists but of the majority of Englishmen. It is true, some apologetic voices were raised in England. Governor Johnstone was “far from being pleased with the Americans for their declarations in favor of Independency, but. . . they were driven to the measure by our vigorous persecution of them.” According to Charles James Fox, the Americans “had done no more than the English had done against James II.” But in general the tone of British comment was hostile and contemptuously sarcastic. “The Declaration of Independence,” said a writer in the Scots Magazine, “is without doubt of the most extraordinary nature both with regard to sentiment and language; and considering that the motive of it is to assign some justifiable reasons of their separating themselves from Great Britain, unless it had been fraught with more truth and sense, might well have been spared, as it reflects no honour upon either their erudition or their honesty.”1
The most elaborate, and probably the most effective, contemporary analysis and refutation of the Declaration was prepared by an English barrister, John Lind, in a pamphlet which Professor Tyler says was “evidently written at the instigation of the ministry, and sent abroad under its approval.” The author points out that the Declaration consists of certain “maxims,” a certain “theory of government,” and certain “facts submitted to the candid world.” Like Hutchinson, he is chiefly concerned with the “facts.” Each charge against the king is quoted to be refuted; and the general conclusion which emerges from this long and minute analysis of the “facts” is that they are not true facts at all, but “calumnies,” statements which allege as usurpations certain measures of government under George III in no way different from measures under his predecessors which the Americans had repeatedly recognized as constitutional. The “theory of government” and the “maxims,” Mr. Lind despatches in brief space. “Of the preamble,” he says, “I have taken little or no notice. The truth is, little or none does it deserve.” Not for their merits, but for the evil they have done, do the American notions need to be refuted. For this purpose it is sufficient to say that they “put the axe to the root of all government,” since in every existing or imaginable government “some one or other of these rights pretended to be unalienable, is actually alienated.”1
In France, we are told, the Declaration was officially “well received.”1 Everything considered, to be received at all was to be well received. Democratic impudence could not well go farther than to ask the descendant of Louis XIV to approve of a rebellion based upon the theory that “governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed.” If the French government received the Declaration, it did so in spite of its political philosophy, because it could not forego the opportunity to take a hand in disrupting the British empire. The alliance which the French government made with “our dear Americans” to achieve this end was nevertheless something more than a mere diplomatic entente. It was approved with unbounded enthusiasm by the people. To those who, steeped in the political and social thought of the age, were looking forward to the regenaration of France, America appeared as a striking confirmation of their hopes, possessing all the importance of a concrete illustration of their imagined state of nature. It is not enough, said Condorcet, that the rights of man “should be written in the books of philosophers and in the hearts of virtuous men; it is necessary that ignorant or weak men should read them in the example of a great people. America has given us this example. The act which declares its independence is a simple and sublime exposition of those rights so sacred and so long forgotten.”1
In France, therefore, where the American Revolution was looked upon as a kind of providential confirmation of ideas long accepted but hitherto demonstrated only in books, the Declaration was cordially approved. “The sublime manifesto of the United States of America was very generally applauded,” wrote Mirabeau in 1778.2 In 1783, Lafayette conspicuously placed a copy of the Declaration in his house, leaving beside it a vacant space to be filled, as we are told, by a declaration of rights for France when, if ever, France should have one.3 Whether, in 1789, Lafayette placed a copy of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen in the vacant space beside the Declaration of Independence I do not know. He may well have done so. But it does not appear that the Declaration of Independence suggested to the French the idea of a declaration of rights, or that it served as a model for the Declaration of Rights which they in fact adopted.1 It was the event itself, the American Revolution, rather than the symbol of the event, which exerted a profound influence upon the course of French history.2 The reasoned justification of separation from Great Britain was based upon particular acts of the British government which did not directly concern Frenchmen, or upon a political philosophy which was already a commonplace of French thought. In France, therefore, the Declaration was celebrated as a great charter of freedom in the history of a people much admired, a charter all the more significant because it formulated, in terse and admirable phrases, those few political maxims which, as Condorcet said, “seem to be no more than the naïve expression of what common sense should teach all men.”1 To Condorcet, as to Jefferson, the political philosophy of the Declaration of Independence was just the common sense of the whole matter.
Jefferson and Condorcet, as well as most of their immediate contemporaries, no doubt took it for granted that this philosophy, being but the common sense of the matter, would rapidly win universal approval and become the sure foundation of governments throughout the world. But in fact the United States had scarcely assumed that equal station to which the laws of nature entitled it, before the laws of nature, in the sense in which the Declaration of Independence had announced them, began to lose their high prestige. Throughout the nineteenth century, these “naïve truths” which Condorcet thought “common sense should teach all men,” were for the most part taken to be fallacies which common sense would reject. What seems but common sense in one age often seems but nonsense in another. Such for the most part is the fate which has overtaken the sublime truths enshrined in the Declaration of Independence.
This is the more interesting since the main political tendency of the nineteenth century was toward democracy, and political democracy could be very conveniently derived from the general philosophy of the Declaration. Yet in very few of the innumerable constitutions of the nineteenth century, in few if any of the constitutions now in force, do we find the natural rights doctrine of the eighteenth century reaffirmed — not even, where we should perhaps most expect it, in the Constitution of the United States or the Constitution of the third French Republic. Modern democracy has accepted one article of the Jeffersonian philosophy — that government rests upon the consent of the governed; and this article, in the form of the right of the majority to rule, it has even erected into an article of faith. For this dogma a theoretical foundation had indeed to be found; but it is significant that the nineteenth century almost ostentatiously refrained from deriving the right of the majority from the natural rights philosophy as formulated in the Declaration of Independence and in the Declaration of the Rights of Man.
The simplest, the naïve, way to justify majority rule was of course to fall back upon force — the majority has the power, and therefore the right; we decide matters “by counting heads instead of by breaking them,” which seems to mean that it is right for the minority of heads to submit in order to avoid being broken by the majority of hands. This idea may sometimes be seen at work in the minds even of those who professed to defend the doctrines of the Declaration of Independence. In the Virginia constitutional convention of 1829, for example, when those who opposed an extension of the suffrage asked for some reasons for that measure “better than the rights of man as held in the French school,” Mr. Campbell, undertaking to derive the right of majorities from “the nature and circumstances of men,” found the “natural right” of majorities to reside in this, that the majority has the power “either to compel. . . or to expell the disaffected.”1 This defense of natural rights would probably not have commended itself either to Locke or to Jefferson; but as a rough and ready justification of democracy it has undoubtedly had, in the nineteenth century, a much wider influence than the ‘metaphysical subtleties’ of the Declaration of Independence.
A more sophisticated justification of majority rule was fashioned by Bentham and his English disciples. Bentham’s Fragment on Government appeared in 1776,2 the very year of the Declaration of Independence; but it is significant that Bentham’s ideas were not much attended to until a generation later when everything reminiscent of Rousseau’s Social Contract was suspect in England. After 1815, with the revival of the movement for parliamentary reform, there began to be a certain demand for a distinctively British road to democracy. What was wanted was a philosophy that would enable Englishmen to be both radical and respectable, a doctrine within the shelter of which one could advocate universal suffrage and at the same time ridicule Rousseau and renounce the “philosophy of the French school.” Bentham supplied this need. Rejecting the eighteenth-century doctrine of natural rights altogether, and taking his chief ideas from Hume and Beccaria, he made utility the test of institutions. The object of society is to achieve the greatest good of all its members; do not ask what rights men have in society, but what benefits they derive from it. In the long run no man can decide for another what is good for that other. Each must decide for himself; and so, if you give each man a voice in deciding what is to be done and how, each man to count for one and none for more than one, the result will be to bring about the greatest good of all, or at least ‘the greatest good of the greatest number,’ which is perhaps the nearest approximation to the greatest good of all. The high merit of Bentham’s theory, in an age that looked back to the Reign of Terror and forward to the socialist menace, was that it had the air of saying: I know that you, the majority of men, have the power, and I offer you everything on condition that you stop waving the red flag and keep the peace. Let us get together; instead of fighting, let us vote; instead of breaking heads, let us count them. The very word ‘utilitarianism’ had a pacific and practical sound; it enabled men to be democratic without thinking themselves visionary, — above all without being thought by others to be pro-French and revolutionary.
If the classic philosophy of the American Declaration of Independence and the French Declaration of Rights proved unacceptable to the nineteenth century, it was thus not because it could be easily made the basis of democratic government, but because it had been, and could again be, so effectively used as a justification of revolutionary movements. The nineteenth century, while progressively democratic, was on the whole anti-revolutionary. In the United States, from the Revolution to the Civil War, the strongest political prepossession of the mass of men was founded in the desire to preserve the independence they had won, the institutions they had established, the ‘more perfect Union’ they had created. The European world, for half a century after the French Revolution, lived in perpetual apprehension of a new Reign of Terror, and not the least of its difficulties was that of making terms with political democracy without opening the door to social upheaval and international conflict. The classic political philosophy of the eighteenth century therefore survived, in so far as it did survive, chiefly as an aftermath of the great revolutions. It maintained at best a precarious existence among the obscure and outcast parties that were frankly revolutionary, and flourished unashamed only in the full light of brilliant but brief revolutionary days.
In the western world, it is true, the philosophy of the Declaration won notable triumphs in South America, during the twenty-five years after 1808, when the Spanish and Portuguese colonies were winning their independence.1 In the United States it has even maintained an august official position to the present day. It may still be seen, in the state constitutions, perfunctorily safeguarding the liberties of mankind. The first state constitutions, which were adopted during the Revolution or shortly afterward, as a matter of course made the current philosophy the foundation of government; and revisions of these constitutions in later years, being mainly confined to those points in respect to which strong popular demand made positive changes necessary, commonly left the preambles intact. The preambles of newer state constitutions seem to be copies or adaptations of preambles in the older ones. Thus the phrase of the Massachusetts constitution of 1780 — “all men are born free and equal, and have certain unalienable rights”: or of the New Hampshire constitution of 1784 — “All men are born equally free and independent”; or of the Kentucky constitution of 1792 — “All men, when they form a social compact, are equal in rights”: — these phrases, with at most slight verbal changes, reappear in most of the Western state constitutions. Why not use these time-honored phrases, since they were in the great tradition, unless there was some good reason for not doing so? In the South, after the rise of the anti-slavery controversy, there were good reasons for not doing so; but even there it was found simpler on the whole to edit the phrases than to omit them altogether. Thus, in the constitutions of Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Kentucky (1799), Mississippi, and Texas (1845), the phrase “All men, when they form a social compact, are equal” was changed to read “All freemen, when they form a social compact, are equal.”1 No danger in affirming that all freemen are equal, and have certain inalienable rights — particularly the right of property.2
The persistence of the political philosophy of the Declaration in the state constitutions must be mainly attributed to the conventional acceptance of a great tradition; particularly so during the thirty years prior to the Civil War, when political leaders, north and south, were ridiculing as fallacies, as glittering generalities, the very principles which were being proclaimed afresh in nearly every constitution of the time. During these decades, the ideas of the Declaration survived as a living faith chiefly among those who felt that slavery was an evil requiring immediate and desperate remedies. The old Jeffersonian anti-slavery sentiment had disappeared, or was rapidly disappearing, in the South. Cotton was king, and the cotton planters were determined to maintain their slaves at all hazards. In the North, business interests, deprecating agitation as inimical to prosperity, were all for holding fast to the sacred constitution as a prescriptive safeguard of liberty. Liberty they would defend, to be sure — “Liberty and Union, one and inseparable.” Against this attitude, the radical abolitionists revolted in passionate disgust. Every honest man, they thought, must know that slavery was a damnable crime against human nature; and yet the United States, proclaiming as its birthright that all men are created equal, not only persisted in the crime, but defended it as a necessary evil or a positive good, thus crowning national dishonor with a mean hypocrisy.
With this crime the abolitionists refused to compromise. Let the Union perish, if it must be so, yes, a thousand times! Honor and righteousness are more precious than law and order. There is a higher allegiance than loyalty to the state. The Constitution, cried Garrison, is a “covenant with death” an “agreement with hell.”1 Neither the Constitution nor the general good is the supreme law of the state, Channing affirmed. “Man has rights by nature. . . . In the order of things they precede society, lie at its foundation, constitute man’s capacity for it, and are the great objects of social institutions.”2 “We should be men first and subjects afterward,” said Thoreau. “It is not desirable to cultivate respect for law, so much as for the right. . . . How does it become a man to behave toward the American government today? I answer, that he cannot without disgrace be associated with it. I cannot for an instant recognize that political organization as my government which is the slave’s government also.”3 In justification of their revolt against the established régime, the abolitionists naturally turned to the Declaration of Independence. From the positive law, they appealed to a “higher law.” They would obey, not the Constitution, but conscience; they would defend, not the legal rights of American citizens, but the sacred and inalienable rights of all men.4
The abolitionists, like the French republicans and the followers of Mazzini in Europe, were but a revolutionary minority. By the great majority, both north and south, they were despised as fanatics and feared as incendiaries. Conservative men in the North did not defend slavery. They recognized it as in itself an evil, and in increasing numbers wished to restrict the spread of the evil, in the hope that, all in good time, it would disappear of its own accord. This they thought might come to pass if men would be patient and reasonable. But they thought that the abolitionists, with criminal disregard of consequences, were creating throughout the country an ugly temper which threatened civil strife and a dissolution of the beloved Union. They therefore refused to recognize rights that were not constitutionally defined, and sought for a solution of the slavery question in correct judicial interpretation. If the Declaration of Independence, as was claimed, countenanced the wild talk and treasonable acts of the abolitionists, then its self-evident truths must be the veriest abstractions, totally unapplicable to a practical world. “Is it man as he ought to be,” asked Rufus Choate, “or man as he is, that we must live with?. . . Do you assume that all men. . . uniformly obey reason?. . . Where on earth is such a fool’s paradise as that to be found?” He urged the Whigs to unite against the new Republican party because it was a ‘geographic party’ which, if it obtained control of the government, would appear to the South as an alien power, “its mission to inaugurate freedom and put down oligarchy, its constitution the glittering and sounding generalities of the Declaration of Independence.”1Glittering generalities! The very phrase practical men were looking for! Only madmen could suppose that the Union and the Constitution and all our hard-won substantial liberties should be abandoned for a metaphysical abstraction.
Southern slave owners were ready to deny the self-evident truths of the Declaration long before Rufus Choate pronounced them glittering generalities; yet they were at first somewhat embarrassed by the fact that the Declaration had been written by the great Jefferson. Loyalty to Jefferson died hard. But perhaps Jefferson did not mean what he said. “Our forefathers,” Governor Hammond explained, “when they proclaimed this truth [that all men were created equal] to be self-evident, were not in the best mood to become philosophers, however well calculated to approve themselves the best of patriots. They were much excited, nay, rather angry.” They were angry with George III; and what they meant to assert was only that kings and nobles and Englishmen were no better than simple American freemen. If Jefferson meant more than that it must be ascribed to the fact that he was unduly influenced by the French school of thought. “The phrase was simply a finely sounding one, significant of that sentimental French philosophy, then so current, which was destined to bear such sanguinary consequences.”1 A Godfearing people, such as the South had now become, could not be expected to follow even Jefferson in subscribing to ideas that were obviously tainted with French atheism. “All this,” the Rev. Frederick Ross asserted, “every word of it, every jot and tittle, is the liberty and equality claimed by infidelity. God has cursed it seven times in France since 1793.”1
To hint that Jefferson was an atheist who did not mean what he said was nevertheless not an adequate defense of slavery. Practical men in the North could pronounce the words ‘glittering generalities’ and let it go at that. They did not own slaves; they did not even defend slavery, they only accepted it as an existing evil to be dealt with practically. But Southern slave owners, denounced by the abolitionists as criminals, and conscious of a certain air of condescension with which even sensible men in the North regarded their ‘peculiar institution,’ could not keep an easy conscience without a profound conviction that slavery was a positive good. Profound convictions were not to be nourished by contemplating the compromises of the Constitution. Slave owners, as well as abolitionists, needed a higher law; but the higher law which they needed could not be found in the Declaration of Independence. They could adequately meet the abolitionists, who affirmed that slavery was a flagrant breach of the “laws of nature and of nature’s God,” by proving that, on the contrary, slavery was in tune with the cosmic harmonies. They had therefore to work out a social philosophy which would relieve them of all responsibility by reconciling society as it is with society as God in his inscrutable providence had intended it to be.
The key to the new philosophy was found in a re-definition of that ancient and battered but still venerable concept of Nature. Continental writers had already achieved this essential task; and it was Thomas Dew, fresh from German universities, who showed the South that natural law, properly conceived, might still be made the sure foundation of African slavery. Nature, he argued, is clearly the work of God, and man is the product of nature — it is “the nature of man to be almost entirely the creature of circumstances.” Now, since God has permitted men to enslave each other in every stage of human history, slavery must be in accord with the nature of man. Admit that slavery is an evil; yet, since the God of nature is perfect, “evil is not the sole object and end of creation,” but only incidental to some universal good. “Well, then, might we have concluded, from the fact that slavery was the necessary result of the laws of mind and matter, that it marked some benevolent design, and was intended by our Creator for some useful purpose.” And so, sure enough, it turned out, upon an unprejudiced examination of history, that human progress, in every stage of development, had been possible only because superior men gained leisure and opportunity by subjugating their inferiors. Thus God and Nature had decreed slavery as the price of civilization.1
A general principle such as this, which implied that “the actual is the rational,” permitted of extreme conclusions: “Man is born to subjection. . . . The proclivity of the natural man is to domineer or to be subservient”: “It is as much in the order of nature that men should enslave each other as that other animals should prey upon each other.”2 Well, what if the slave should cease to be subservient and begin to prey? Would it not be in the order of nature that the slave should kill his master and run away? And would not the slave who ran away, and the abolitionist who aided him, both be doing God’s will, if God permitted the enterprise to succeed? This was perhaps going too far. It needed to be demonstrated that obedience to the Fugitive Slave Law was more effectively in accord with God’s purpose than the inclination of the slave to run away. The general principle had therefore to be so stated that the positive law of any particular state would make an integral part of the universal law of nature.
It was Calhoun who performed this task most successfully. “In order to have a clear and just conception of the nature and object of government,” he says in the opening paragraph of the Disquisition on Government,1 “it is indispensable to understand correctly what that constitution or law of our nature is, in which government originates; or, to express it more fully and accurately, — that law, without which government would not, and with which, it must necessarily exist.” This constitution or law of our nature he states as follows: “while man is. . . so formed as to feel what affects others, as well as what affects himself, he is, at the same time, so constituted as to feel more intensely what affects himself directly, than what affects him indirectly through others.” His feeling what affects others fits him to live with others, in the social state; but his feeling more intensely what affects himself results in a “tendency to a universal state of conflict, between individual and individual,” which, if not restrained by some controlling power, will end “in a state of universal discord and confusion, destructive of the social state and the ends for which it is ordained. This controlling power. . . is government.”1 Thus society is necessary to satisfy men’s needs, and government is necessary to restrain their wickedness; and both are “natural” because God has so constituted man that he cannot live without them.
As government is essential for the existence of man in society, liberty is essential for his progress and perfection.
To perfect society, it is necessary to develop the faculties, intellectual and moral, with which man is endowed. But the main spring to their development, and, through this, to progress, improvement and civilization, with all their blessings, is the desire of individuals to better their condition. For this purpose, liberty and security are indispensable. Liberty leaves each free to pursue the course he may deem best to promote his interest and happiness, as far as it may be compatible with the primary end for which government is ordained.2
How far individuals may be left thus free will obviously depend upon circumstances — upon the special circumstances external and internal, of the particular community.
It is a great and dangerous error to suppose that all people are equally entitled to liberty. It is a reward to be earned, not a blessing to be gratuitously lavished on all alike; — a reward reserved for the intelligent, the patriotic, the virtuous and deserving; — and not a boon to be bestowed on a people too ignorant, degraded and vicious, to be capable either of appreciating or enjoying it. . . . An all-wise Providence has reserved it, as the noblest and highest reward for the development of our faculties, moral and intellectual. This dispensation seems to be the result of some fixed law. . . . The progress of a people rising from a lower to a higher point in the scale of liberty, is necessarily slow; — and by attempting to precipitate it, we either retard, or permanently defeat it.1
Liberty in this sense, which is (somewhat inconsistently) both the cause and the reward of progress, implies inequality of condition. That there must be, in popular government, “equality of citizens, in the eyes of the law,” Calhoun concedes. But to attempt to establish “equality of condition” would be to “destroy both liberty and progress.”
In order to understand why this is so, it is necessary to bear in mind, that the main spring to progress is, the desire of individuals to better their condition. . . . Now, as individuals differ greatly from each other, in intelligence, sagacity, energy, perseverence, skill, habits of industry and economy, physical power, position and opportunity — the necessary effect of leaving all free to exert themselves to better their conditions, must be a corresponding inequality. . . . The only means by which this result can be prevented are, either to impose such restrictions on the exertions of those who may possess [ability] in a high degree, as will place them on a level with those who do not; or to deprive them of the fruits of their exertions. But to impose such restrictions on them would be destructive of liberty — while to deprive them of the fruits of their exertions, would be to destroy the desire of bettering their condition. . . . and effectually arrest the march of progress.1
From this point of view, the self-evident truths of the Declaration of Independence were fallacies chiefly because they were derived from a false conception of nature. It might well be that all men are equal in a state of nature, “meaning, by a state of nature, a state of individuality, supposed to have existed prior to the social and political state, and in which men lived apart and independent of each other.” In such a state all men would indeed be free and equal.
But such a state is purely hypothetical. It never did, nor can exist; as it is inconsistent with the preservation and perpetuation of the race. It is, therefore, a great misnomer to call it the state of nature. Instead of being the natural state of man, it is, of all conceivable states, the most opposed to his nature — most repugnant to his feelings, and most incompatible with his wants. His natural state is the social and political — the one for which his Creator made him, and the only one in which he can preserve and perfect his race. . . . It follows, that men, instead of being born in it (the so-called state of nature) are born in the social and political state; and of course, instead of being born free and equal, are born subject, not only to parental authority, but to the laws and institutions of the country where born, and under whose protection they draw their first breath.1
Thus Calhoun identified natural law with the positive law of particular states, the state of nature with the state of political society as history actually gave it rather than as it might be rationally conceived and reconstructed. In this scheme the natural state of the African race was obviously the state which the historic process created for it in any moment of historical evolution. It might seem a hard saying to affirm that the natural rights of Southern slaves were defined in the Fugitive Slave law and the statutes of South Carolina; but so it had been decreed by God who created men with varying instincts and capacities, and laid down, in terms of these instincts and capacities, the indefeasible conditions under which men must win or lose a precarious freedom.
Whether the social philosophers of the Old South were much influenced by contemporary political speculation in Europe it is difficult to determine. Thomas Dew studied in German universities,1 where he must have become familiar with the ideas of the historic rights school. Francis Lieber, a German Liberal who took his degree at Jena, was appointed professor of Political Economy in South Carolina College in 1835. There he remained for twenty years teaching the ideas which he doubtless imbibed in his university days, and which in any case he expounded in his Political Ethics, first published in 1838.1 At all events, whether German influence was great or little, the political ideas which in the United States discredited the doctrines of the Declaration of Independence were similar in essentials to those which in Europe had already deprived the Declaration of the Rights of Man of its former high prestige.
In Europe, the revulsion from the ideas of the eighteenth century was the direct result of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic conquests. After twenty-five years of political upheaval it seemed to most men that “social regeneration” had been carried, if not too far, at least far enough. Long before that grey dawn of 1815, it seemed obvious that the Revolution had not ushered in the millennium. It seemed to have ushered in, instead of the millennium, the Guillotine; instead of a just and abiding social order, the Jacobin Terror; instead of the religion of Humanity, the blasphemies of Hébert’s Festival of Reason; instead of the fraternal concord of people, devastating war and the subjection of nations to the cynical despotism of a military adventurer. So at least most men thought. “The Revolution” was a phrase which called up, in the minds of solid, respectable people everywhere, terrifying visions of anarchy and atheism; the good it had done was carefully interred beneath the threshold of consciousness, while its evil deeds were held in pious remembrance. It was taken for granted that Napoleon was (what he called himself) the “child of the Revolution,” and that the Revolution was but the inevitable result of the loose and licentious doctrines of “Philosophers,” the “atheistical French school of thought,” above all of the false and vicious political philosophy of Rousseau’s Social Contract.
To the generation that did its political thinking against the background of the Reign of Terror and the Napoleonic conquests, it seemed that the revolutionary philosophy had proved disastrous chiefly in two respects. By endowing men with inalienable rights superior to those of positive law, it was a standing invitation to insurrection and a persistent cause of anarchy. But the philosophy of the Declaration of Rights not only preached revolution, it preached the universal revolution. Declaring that the inalienable rights were the same for all men and the only sure foundation of political institutions, it implied that the institutions proper to one people were so to all peoples. The practical outcome could be read in the history of Europe from 1789 to 1815. Not satisfied with destroying the foundations of French society, the National Convention, and after it Napoleon, had justified the conquest of Europe on the ground that it was the high mission of France to impose upon backward neighbors its own superior civilization. Those who had defended Europe in the wars of liberation could not but think that a political philosophy which justified the conquest of one nation by another must be false. And so, as the Revolution had created a deep-seated fear of social anarchy, the Napoleonic wars raised the sentiment of national patriotism to the level of a religious faith. Both in politics and religion, conservatism was in the ascendant, and men were predisposed to welcome theories which made for social stability and permitted each nation to hold fast to its established traditions.
The chief task of conservative thought in Europe was accordingly to discredit Rousseau and the Social Contract, just as the task of conservative thought in America was to discredit Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence. Many men refuted Rousseau; but the motives which led men to attempt it, as well as the method by which it was most commonly done, are conveniently revealed in the life and writings of the Vicomte de Bonald. Like many another French noble of ancient lineage, Bonald had read the Philosophers of the eighteenth century, and had taken on, as a kind of conventional veneer, the current ideas of natural rights. When the Revolution came he accepted it as the beginning of better days, and even, for a time, associated himself with it. But Bonald was a loyal son of the Church. Unable to approve the Civil Constitution of the Clergy, he emigrated in 1791; and watching, during weary years of exile, the course of events in France, the Revolution at last seemed to him the very negation of society and religion. In 1794, at the age of forty, never yet having written a book, Bonald took up his pen “under the irresistable impression” that it was his duty to show how anarchy and atheism were the inevitable results of the fatal theories of the Philosophers. His first work appeared in 1796 — the first of many volumes chiefly designed to lay a theoretical foundation for political and ecclesiastical authority.1
For Bonald, as for Calhoun, the chief fallacy of the political philosophy of the eighteenth century was a false conception of nature. It is significant that on the title page of his first book he placed the following passage from the Social Contract:
If the legislator, misconceiving his object, establishes a principle other than that which springs from the nature of things, the state will not cease to be disturbed until this principle is destroyed or changed, and until irresistable nature shall have resumed her empire.1
This was a profound truth for Bonald as well as for Rousseau. But what is the nature of things?
Since modern philosophy has strangely abused the word nature, it is necessary to determine its true sense. The nature or essence of every being is that which makes it what it is, and without which it would not be that being. . . . God has created these beings with the most perfect natures, and has placed them in certain necessary relations, relations that is to say most appropriate to the attainment of their ends.2
The error of Rousseau was to confound the “natural” with the “primitive.” The true nature of a thing is not found in its origin but in its end: the natural state is therefore a state of development, of accomplishment, of perfection. The instinct of man leads him to form societies; and these societies, since they exist, are “in the nature of man.” Like man himself, society has “existence for its object, and it must naturally tend toward its own conservation, toward its own perfection, as man by his nature tends toward existence and happiness.”1
If, then, society as it has developed and as it exists is the very work of nature, how absurd to say, as Rousseau and the Philosophers said: Go to, we will reconstruct society along rational lines, according to the nature of man. Men might as well try to change their own skins as to try, with conscious deliberation, to reconstruct society. “It is not for man to construct society; it is for society to fashion man.”2 Rousseau did not understand this profound truth; and because he did not understand this, he did not understand the true source of law and social authority. The source of law is no doubt the “general will,” as Rousseau maintained; but he misconceived the meaning of the general will, just as he misconceived the meaning of nature. The “general will” is not the mere sum of individual wills, determined by no matter what hocus pocus of compact or ballot box. “Every being has a will, if it be intelligent, a tendency, if it be material, to attain its end. . . . Political and natural society has an end, which is the production or the conservation of beings.” Therefore political society “wills the laws or necessary relations between beings; if it wills them, it produces them, or is itself produced by them, since the general will is necessarily efficacious.”1 This is a way of saying that the general will is the sum of those natural influences which shape the life of a people; and since it is God who creates nature and works through it, the general will is the same as the will of God. Thus Bonald sets up, for the purpose of keeping the individual in his place, a doctrine of the social will which functions without regard to what the individual consciously wills. “Man exists only for society, and society shapes him for its own purposes.”2
For the purposes of this study, Bonald’s premises are more important than his conclusions. His conclusions were too ultra conservative to place him in the main current of nineteenth century thought; but few writers enable one to understand better how the Revolution led men to renounce the eighteenth century conception of natural rights, or to see more clearly how, by a slight twist in the definition of nature, the foundation was laid for anti-revolutionary political philosophies.
This revolution in the inner world of thought, born of the desire to prevent revolution in the outer world of conduct, was far more systematically accomplished in Germany than in France, and is associated, in its origin, with a far greater man than Bonald. It was Savigny above all who taught the nineteenth century how to justify progressive changes in institutions without countenancing violent revolution, and how to think of the differing institutions of many nations as being all in harmony with nature and all equally pleasing in God’s sight. Savigny’s great work was the History of the Roman Law in the Middle Ages, the first volume of which appeared in 1815. But he formulated the central idea of the historic rights school the year before, in a pamphlet in which he opposed the current project for a codification of German law.1 Savigny maintained that any code at that time would be a bad one, because it would be too much influenced by the “shallow philosophy” of the natural law school, whereas a German code, if there must be one, should be based on a thorough knowledge of the history of German law. Law, said Savigny in effect, is not properly “made” by the legislator, any more than language is made by the grammarian. Law, like language, is a natural moral product of a people, no more than the persistent custom of a nation, springing organically from its past and present life. The business of the legislator is therefore not to “make” law, but to discover, through historical research, what it is.
The state itself, according to Savigny, is no more to be created by conscious deliberation than law or language. It also springs organically from the life and history of a people. It originates in “a higher necessity, in a creative power working from within. . . . The generation of the state is thus also an aspect of the generation of law, and it is certainly the highest degree of that generation.” Even statute law “lives in the general consciousness of a people”; and thus legislation, in its proper sense, is but giving to positive law “an outwardly recognizable form, by force of which each individual opinion may be set aside.”1 Savigny protested that he was far from wishing to close the door to progress. In the preface to his System of Modern Roman Law, written in 1839, he said that “the historical view of legal science is completely mistaken and disfigured when. . . so conceived as if, according to this view, the legal culture developing out of the past were set up as something supreme.” On the contrary, “the essence of that view consists much more in the uniform recognition of the value and the independence of each age, and it merely ascribes the greatest weight to the recognition of the living connection which knits the present and the past.”1
Savigny was not the most popular writer of the nineteenth century, but the doctrine of historic rights was so exactly suited to the hopes and fears of his generation that it entered, almost without effort, as an underlying preconception, into the thought of the time, very much as the natural rights doctrine of Jefferson and Rousseau had entered into the thought of the eighteenth century. The effectiveness of the historic rights philosophy was indeed precisely in this, that it encountered the natural rights philosophy of the eighteenth century on its own ground, and refuted it from its own premises. Admitting that rights were founded in nature, it identified nature with history, and affirmed that the institutions of any nation were properly but an expression of the life of the people, no more than the crystallization of its tradition, the cumulative deposit of its experience, the résumé of its history. It implied that every people has, therefore, at any given time, the social order which nature has given it, the order which is on the whole best suited to its peculiar genius and circumstance, the order which is accordingly the embodiment of that freedom which it has achieved and the starting point for such further freedom as it may hope to attain. Welcomed because it opened the door to progress in terms of nationality while refusing admission to revolutionary methods, the new doctrine, or the old doctrine newly formulated, became the accepted creed of all those who wished to be classed neither with the reactionaries nor with the revolutionists, those liberal-conservatives and conservative-liberals who realized that they lived in a changing world but ardently prayed that it might not change too rapidly.
To prevent the world from changing too rapidly, nothing is more effective than to look with admiration on the past; and it was probably the historians who did as much as any class of men to popularize the historic rights philosophy. With the rise of patriotic nationalism, men of all countries turned to study anew the origins and the development of national institutions. With unrivalled enthusiasm, with admirable patience and ingenuity, historians devoted themselves to finding out what had happened in the past of each nation in order, as Droysen later explained, to “understand through investigation.” And what historians for the most part understood through investigation was how things had come to be what they were, and why they could not after all have been much different — why the law and government of Germany, for example, could not have been the same, and could not in the nature of the case be made the same, as those of France.
In France liberals and conservatives alike turned to the past in order to learn how the Revolution came, why it succeeded in spite of failure or failed in spite of success, why the existing régime was what it was, why it would last indefinitely or prove only a necessary stage to something better or different. Nearly every history of France written between 1815 and 1848 conveys, explicitly or implicitly, the idea that whatever Frenchmen may think of the situation they are in, history will tell them how they came to be in it. Leber, the editor of one of many collections of chronicles designed to meet the demand for historical works after 1815, expressed a common view in his preface: “One seeks in history all the characteristic traits of a people. . . obeying in its movement the peculiar impulsion given to it by its laws, its beliefs, its morality, its genius, its industry, its habits, and its tastes.”1 In 1836 Sismondi defined, while he protested against, the underlying preconception which so largely shaped the historical work of his generation. “We seek in history,” he said, “the rights of the present generation, and not examples for guiding posterity; we ask of past centuries the measure of the prerogatives of the throne, or of the liberties of the people, as if nothing could exist today except that which has formerly existed.1
But it was in Germany, where the opposition to the Revolution was most pronounced, that political history came most effectively to the support of the historic rights school of jurisprudence; and among historians no one professed or preached the historic rights idea more persistently than the friend and associate of Savigny, Leopold von Ranke, the patron saint of nineteenth-century historians. Ranke’s first work appeared in 1824. Fifty-six years later, at the age of eighty-five, the tireless and insatiable old man sat down to write, in no matter how many volumes, a Weltgeschichte, of which in fact he lived to finish only six volumes. It was a brave attempt to complete the edifice which he had so long labored to erect; for in truth Ranke’s whole life was devoted to the Weltgeschichte, that is to say the history of the ‘progress of mankind.’ Yet in Ranke’s view the progress of mankind was strictly conditioned by the ‘individuality of nations.’ He thought of the different nations as collaborating at a common task, each one at some period taking the lead and contributing something distinctive, something proper to its peculiar genius, to the common possession. It was his plan to write the history of each European nation at the time when it made this distinctive contribution, at the time when it became, as German history in the time of Luther became, “at once a universal history.”1
This was a way of conceiving universal history that the eighteenth century would scarcely have understood. No man, professing a philosophy, was less of a Philosophe than Ranke. He does not, like Montesquieu, seek for that which is common to all peoples, but for that which is distinctive in each people. His interest in universal history never disturbs his faith in the ‘individuality of nations’; and hence he does not identify humanity with the universal man, with “man in general,” but with the particular nation (or great men speaking for the nation), at the moment when it most clearly exhibits the nation’s peculiar genius or individuality. When it does this “it enters into relations so intimate with all the powers of the world that its history, in a certain sense, expands into universal history.”1 This is almost the precise opposite to what the eighteenth century hoped for: the nation, which the age of enlightenment hoped to see assimilated to mankind, is already, in Ranke’s scheme, preparing to swallow the Human Race.
For Ranke, as for the generation after 1815, when, as he says, “historical studies developed essentially in opposition to the ascendancy of the Napoleonic ideas,” there is indeed no question of discovering the natural rights common to all men, or of constructing institutions appropriate to all peoples, since the individuality of nations is fixed past all changing. In each state, he says, “some particular moral or intellectual principle predominates: a principle prescribed by an inherent necessity, expressed in determinate forms, and giving birth to a peculiar condition of society or character of civilization.”2 The historian will note these distinctive characteristics of the different nations, and record the events in which they find expression; and he will do well to record them just as they occurred,1 bad and good together, since thus it is and not otherwise that God has made men and nations, through whose actions he indeed reveals himself. This is after all the ultimate truth, that history is God’s work, which we must submit to, but which we may seek to understand in order that we may submit to it intelligently.2
The influence of Ranke, through his books and through his disciples, was wide and profound; and the philosophy of history and of rights which he professed and which is implicit in his books, was that of Savigny, was in the main that of the generation in which he began to write, that which Hegel perfected and rarefied and formulated for that generation in the epigram, Weltgeschichte ist das Weltgericht. It is true that Ranke repudiated Hegelianism. But it was the Hegelian history rather than the Hegelian philosophy that Ranke rejected; what he objected to was not so much that Hegel derived a false philosophy from history as that he deduced a fantastic history from philosophy. The philosophy of both men was in essentials the same: in the dim background God (or the Transcendent Idea), moving in mysterious ways, obliquely revealing the cosmic purpose in man as he is, and in his history, just as it happened. For half a century this philosophy was the chief intellectual weapon for combating the natural rights doctrine of the eighteenth century, the chief intellectual bulwark for resisting the spread of French republicanism and the democratic internationalism of Mazzini. The individual, in the eighteenth century emancipated from prescriptive law and custom, was once more confined within the complex framework of circumstance; liberated by the revolutionary age from his environment in order to reconstruct it on rational lines, he was again imprisoned in the social process. The existing social order, the particular nation with its political organization, its law, its speech and literature, was thought of as the necessary product of the social process, as the product of history; and thought of therefore as the state of nature par excellence, as the only valid expression of God’s purpose, or as the concrete realization of a mysterious Reason of Nature superior to any mere individual reasoning, a kind of transcendental Vernunft enclosing and reconciling within its cloudy recesses the verdicts of innumerable and conflicting Verstände.
Natural rights in the eighteenth-century sense, in the sense of the Declaration of Independence, could not be a possession of the individual who was thus securely imprisoned in the social process. Rights he still did possess, rights that were even “natural” and God-given in their way; but they were not something to be fought for and won. Since the rights which God and nature gave him were little more than the privileges, or absence of privileges, which the positive law conferred, it was indeed not always easy to tell the difference between rights and wrongs. Perhaps there was consolation in thinking that one’s rights or wrongs, such as they were, were useful to that “society” which “shapes man for its own purposes”; and so long as the individual could be sure the purpose was beneficent, and would benefit some one in the long run, he might be content to sacrifice himself for the ultimate good which God could see even if he himself could not. But if the social process should some time cease to be visualized as the progressive realization of God’s purpose, the individual was likely to find his prison rather stuffy, might even find it impossible to associate the idea of rights in any sense with conditions that had every appearance of being ugly and meaningless.
This in some measure came to pass in the latter nineteenth century. Much serious, minutely critical investigation into the origins of institutions seemed to show that all things human might be fully accounted for without recourse to God or the Transcendent Idea. At the same time the fruitful discoveries of natural science, particularly the great discovery of Darwin, were convincing the learned world that the origin, differentiation, and modification of all forms of life on the globe were the result of natural forces in a material sense; and that the operation of these forces might be formulated in terms of abstract laws which would neatly and sufficiently account for the organic world, just as the physical sciences were able to account for the physical world. When so much the greater part of the universe showed itself amenable to the reign of a purely material natural law, it was difficult to suppose that man (a creature in many respects astonishingly like the higher forms of apes) could have been permitted to live under a special dispensation. It was much simpler to assume one origin for all life and one law for all growth; simpler to assume that man was only the most highly organized of the creatures (the missing link would doubtless shortly be found), and to think of his history accordingly, as only a more subtly negotiated struggle for existence and survival.
Meanwhile, this view seemed to find striking confirmation in the world of affairs. “The most indifferent arguments are good when one has a majority of bayonets,” Bismarck assured his contemporaries; and contemporaries celebrated his work when he made the German Empire by “iron and blood.” Cavour won liberty for Italy, as Mazzini said, “by bowing the knee to force,” by calling in the aid of Louis Napoleon, the very man who won fame by placing his heel on liberty in France; and in the New World it was not by the sweet reasonableness of Congressional debate, but by force of arms, that freedom was conferred upon the slave. Confronted with these solid facts, “speeches and resolutions of parliament,” rational schemes for reconstructing society, seemed indeed of little avail. Industrial exploitation, Machiavellian politics, war — what were these, what had they ever been, but nature’s instruments for enabling those to survive who had the power?
In this view of things, neither God nor the Transcendent Idea seemed any longer a necessary part of the social process. The social process would go on very well by itself. But what its purpose was, or whether it would ever come to any good end, who could say? Herbert Spencer, having replaced God by the Unknowable, could only affirm that the social process was one phase of the evolution of all things “from an indefinite, incoherent homogeneity to a definite, coherent heterogeneity.” This might be illuminating, but it was not the same thing as Ranke’s idea that ultimate purposes could safely be left to God, or as Hegel’s notion that the Transcendent Idea was working steadily toward Freedom. Yet it left the individual more diminished than ever, and more helplessly bound. In a universe in which man seemed only a chance deposit on the surface of the world, and the social process no more than a resolution of blind force, the ‘right’ and the ‘fact’ were indeed indistinguishable; in such a universe the rights which nature gave to man were easily thought of as measured by the power he could exert. Aggressive nationalism found this idea convenient for the exploitation of backward races; while militant socialists, proclaiming anew the social revolution, and giving but a passing glance at the old revolutionary doctrine of the Declaration of Independence and the Declaration of the Rights of Man, found their ‘higher law’ in nature and natural law indeed, but in natural law reconceived in terms of the Marxian doctrine of the class conflict.
To ask whether the natural rights philosophy of the Declaration of Independence is true or false is essentially a meaningless question. When honest men are impelled to withdraw their allegiance to the established law or custom of the community, still more when they are persuaded that such law or custom is too iniquitous to be longer tolerated, they seek for some principle more generally valid, some ‘law’ of higher authority, than the established law or custom of the community. To this higher law or more generally valid principle they then appeal in justification of actions which the community condemns as immoral or criminal. They formulate the law or principle in such a way that it is, or seems to them to be, rationally defensible. To them it is ‘true’ because it brings their actions into harmony with a rightly ordered universe, and enables them to think of themselves as having chosen the nobler part, as having withdrawn from a corrupt world in order to serve God or Humanity or a force that makes for the highest good.
In different times this higher law has taken on different forms — the law of God revealed in Scripture, or in the inner light of conscience, or in nature; in nature conceived as subject to rational control, or in nature conceived as blind force subjecting men and things to its compulsion. The natural rights philosophy of the Declaration of Independence was one formulation of this idea of a higher law. It furnished at once a justification and a profound emotional inspiration for the revolutionary movements of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Founded upon a superficial knowledge of history it was, certainly; and upon a naïve faith in the instinctive virtues of human kind.Yet it was a humane and engaging faith. At its best it preached toleration in place of persecution, goodwill in place of hate, peace in place of war. It taught that beneath all local and temporary diversity, beneath the superficial traits and talents that distinguish men and nations, all men are equal in the possession of a common humanity; and to the end that concord might prevail on the earth instead of strife, it invited men to promote in themselves the humanity which bound them to their fellows, and to shape their conduct and their institutions in harmony with it.
This faith could not survive the harsh realities of the modern world. Throughout the nineteenth century the trend of action, and the trend of thought which follows and serves action, gave an appearance of unreality to the favorite ideas of the age of enlightenment. Nationalism and industrialism, easily passing over into an aggressive imperialism, a more trenchant scientific criticism steadily dissolving its own ‘universal and eternal laws’ into a multiplicity of incomplete and temporary hypotheses — these provided an atmosphere in which faith in Humanity could only gasp for breath. “I have seen Frenchmen, Italians, Russians,” said Joseph de Maistre, “but as for Man, I declare I never met him in my life; if he exists, it is without my knowledge.”1 Generally speaking, the nineteenth century doubted the existence of Man. Men it knew, and nations, but not Man. Man in General was not often inquired after. Friends of the Human Race were rarely to be found. Humanity was commonly abandoned to its own devices.
[1 ]Works of John Adams, II, 514.
[1 ]Ibid., 511–514.
[1 ] Letter to E. W. Farley, Aug. 9, 1856; Brown, S. G. Life of Rufus Choate, 324, 326.
[1 ]Writings of Thomas Jefferson (Ford ed.), X, 120.
[1 ]Works of John Adams, II, 514.
[1 ] Tyler, M. C. Literary History of the American Revolution, I, 499.
[1 ] For contemporary patriot comment, see Hazelton, op. cit., Ch. 10.
[1 ]Strictures upon the Declaration of the Congress at Philadelphia: In a Letter to a Noble Lord. London, 1776.
[1 ] For British comment, see Hazelton, op. cit., 232 ff.
[1 ]An Answer to the Declaration of the American Congress. London, 1776. See especially, pp. 117, 119, 120.
[1 ] Silas Deane to John Jay, Dec. 3, 1776; quoted in Hazelton, op. cit., 548.
[1 ]Oeuvres de Condorcet, VIII, II.
[2 ]Des lettres de cachet et des prisons d’état. Ouvrage posthume, composé en 1778. (Hambourg, 1782), I, 284. The “ouvrage posthume” was a mask to conceal the author.
[3 ] “As soon as he took a house in 1783, he placed in it the Declaration of Independence with a vacant place, ‘waiting,’ as he boldly said, ‘the declaration of rights of France.’” Mémoires et correspondance du général LaFayette, III, 197. Cf. Mémoires pour servir à la vie du général LaFayette et à l’bistoire de l’Assemblée constituente, I, 23.
[1 ] The idea of a declaration of rights, rather than the ideas contained in it, may have been taken from America. This idea, however, was found applied, not in the Declaration of Independence, but in the “Bills of Rights” in the American state constitutions. This question has been much discussed since 1895 when Jellinek published his Die Erklärung der Menschen- und Bürgerrecbte. The work has been translated by Professor Max Farrand, The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of Citizens. For an able critique of Jellinek, see the article by Boutmy in Annales des Science Politiques, XVII. For recent literature see Rees, W. Die Erklärung der Menschen- und Bürgerrechte von 1789 (Leipzig, 1912), and works cited by Rees in his bibliography.
[2 ] See Rosenthal, L. America and France: the Influence of the United States on France in the XVIII Century. 2nd ed. 1882.
[1 ]Oeuvres de Condorcet, VIII, 18.
[1 ]Proceedings and Debates in the Virginia State Convention of 1829–1830 (Richmond, 1830), 53, 54, 56, 120.
[2 ]A Fragment on Government, by Jeremy Bentham. Edited with an Introduction by F. C. Montague. Oxford, 1891.
[1 ] Calderon, F. G. Latin America, 81 ff. Shepherd, W. R. Central and South America, 73, 74. For certain declarations of independence and constitutions, see British State Papers, I. 1104, 1108, 1136; V, 645, 646; VIII, 570; IX, 698; X, 701, 1076, 1107; XIII, 725; XIV, 940; XVI, 1049; XVIII, 1065, 1074, 1119.
[1 ] The above paragraph is based upon an examination of state constitutions prior to 1878 as given in Poore, B. P. The Federal and State Constitutions, ed. 1878. Cf. for Arkansas, 103, 121, 134, 155; Alabama, 32; California, 195; Connecticut, 258; Florida, 317, 332, 347; Illinois, 446, 466, 471; Indiana, 500, 512; Iowa, 537, 552; Kansas, 580, 605, 609, 615, 630; Kentucky, 654, 666, 684; Louisiana, 755; Maine, 787; Maryland, 817, 837, 859, 888; Massachusetts, 957; Michigan, 983, 995; Minnesota, 1029; Mississippi, 1054, 1067, 1081; Missouri, 1114, 1135, 1165; Nebraska, 1203, 1214; Nevada, 1247; New Hampshire, 1280; 1294; New Jersey, 1310, 1314; North Carolina, 1409, 1419, 1436, Ohio, 1461, 1465; Oregon, 1492; Pennsylvania, 1541, 1554, 1564, 1570; Rhode Island, 1603; South Carolina, 1646; Tennessee, 1673, 1677, 1695; Texas, 1762, 1767, 1784, 1801, 1824; Vermont, 1859, 1867, 1875; Virginia, 1908, 1913, 1919, 1939, 1953; West Virginia, 1978, 1994; Wisconsin, 2028.
[2 ] “The right of property is before and higher than any constitutional sanction.” Kansas (Lecompton) constitution of 1857. Ibid., 605.
[1 ] “To say that this ‘covenant with death’ shall not be annulled — that this ‘agreement with hell’ shall continue to stand — that this ‘refuge of lies’ shall not be swept away — is to hurl defiance at the eternal throne.” Selections from the Writings and Speeches of William Lloyd Garrison (Boston, 1852), 118.
[2 ] Channing, W. E. Slavery (ed. 1835), 31.
[3 ] “Civil Disobedience”; Writings of Thoreau (ed. 1906), IV, 358, 360.
[4 ] Cf. Declaration of Sentiments of the American Anti-Slavery Society in Philadelphia. 1833. The abolition argument is carefully analyzed in Lewis, C. The Anti-Slavery Argument as Developed in the Literature 1830–1840 (ms. doctoral thesis in Cornell University library). The principles of the Declaration of Independence were defended by some who were not radical abolitionists. Lincoln defended the Declaration as defining an ideal to be attained “as soon as circumstances should permit.” Works, I, 232. But he carefully refrained from subscribing to the doctrine that natural rights could be conceived as a ‘higher law’ which justified violent revolution. Seward, in his famous 11 of March speech affirmed that the “laws must be brought to the standard of the laws of God.” “The constitution regulates our stewardship. But there is a higher law than the constitution.” Works of William H. Seward (Boston, 1884), I, 66, 74. The last phrase aroused furious opposition, especially in the South, and Seward, who did not always carefully consider what he was saying, hastened to explain that the phrase did not mean what it seemed to mean. The speech and the denunciation of it inspired William Hosmer to write a book in defense of the idea of a higher law. The Higher Law in its Relations to Civil Government. Auburn, 1852. Francis Weyland, President of Brown University, published in 1835 a widely used college textbook in which he defended the Declaration of Independence and brought much learning to the support of the natural rights philosophy. The Elements of Moral Science (ed. 1860), 180, 189, 197, 208, 219. Pro-slavery writers were at much pains, during the decade 1850-1860, to refute Weyland.
[1 ] Letter to E. W. Farley, Aug. 9, 1856; Brown, S. G. Life of Rufus Choate (ed. 1881), 325, 326.
[1 ] “Morals of Slavery,” in Pro-Slavery Argument, 250.
[1 ] Ross, F. A. Slavery Ordained of God (Philadelphia, 1857), 105.
[1 ] Dew, T. R. An Essay on Slavery (ed. 1849), 7, 24. The essay was first published in 1832 as a review of the debates in the Virginia legislature on the abolition of slavery.
[2 ] Quoted from Harper’s Memoir on Slavery (1838) by W. E. Dodd, who gives an admirable résumé of the social philosophy of the Old South in his Cotton Kingdom, Ch. 3. The pro-slavery philosophy may be conveniently studied in Pro-Slavery Argument as Maintained by the Most Distinguished Writers of the Southern States. Philadelphia, 1853. This is a reprint of writings by Dew, Harper, Simms, and Hammond. Cf. also Cooper, Th. Lectures on the Elements of Political Economy (Columbia, S. C., 1826); Fletcher, J. Studies on Slavery (Natchez, Charleston, New Orleans, and Philadelphia. 5th thousand, 1852); Sawyer, G. S. Southern Institutes (Philadelphia, 1859); Fitzhugh, G. Cannibals All! Or Slaves without Masters (Richmond, 1857); Seabury, S. American Slavery Distinguished from the Slavery of English Theorists and Justified by the Law of Nature (New York, 1861); Smith, A. W. Lectures on the Philosophy and Practice of Slavery (Nashville, 1856); Campbell, J. Negro-Mania: being an Examination of the Falsely Assumed Equality of the Various Races of Men (Philadelphia, 1851). J. C. Nott published his learned ethnological researches to demonstrate the ‘plurality of creations.’ Cf. his digression on the negro (Types of Mankind, 10th ed. 1871, p. 191.). His ideas on slavery were more fully given in an address printed in De Bow’s Industrial Resources, 11, 308. The laws of nature from the physiological point of view also proved that the negro never had been, and never could be, the equal of the white man. Cf. Dr. Cartwright on “Diseases and Peculiarities of the Negro” in Ibid., 315.
[1 ] The Disquisition on Government was not printed until 1851, when it appeared in the first volume of the Works of John C. Calhoun. The same ideas, so far as the Declaration of Independence is concerned, were presented by Calhoun in his speech on the Oregon Bill in the Senate in 1848. Works, IV, 507–510. Even at that time these ideas were common-place in the South. The Disquisition is important therefore, not from any influence it may have had in determining the character of the proslavery philosophy, but because it is the most coherent and carefully guarded formulation of that philosophy.
[1 ]Works of John C. Calboun, I, 1, 2, 4.
[2 ]Ibid., 52.
[1 ]Ibid., 55, 56.
[1 ]Ibid., 56, 57.
[1 ]Ibid., 58.
[1 ] Dodd, W. E. Cotton Kingdom, 49.
[1 ] “What is. . . the true state of nature of any being or thing? Doubtless that in which it fulfills most completely that end and object for which it is made. . . . Man was essentially made for progressive civilization, and this, therefore, is his natural state.” Political Ethics (ed. 1885), 1, 133.
[1 ] Moulinie, H. De Bonald: la Vie, la Carrière Politique, la Doctrine (Paris, 1916), Ch. I.
[1 ]Théorie du Pouvoir (ed. 1843).
[2 ]Ibid., I, 44.
[1 ]Ibid., 9.
[2 ]Ibid., 3.
[1 ]Ibid., 40–42.
[2 ]Ibid., 3.
[1 ]Von Beruf unserer Zeit für Gesetzgebung und Rechtswissenschaft.
[1 ]System des heutigen Römischen Rechts (ed. 1840), I, 22, 14, 39.
[1 ]Ibid., xiv, xv.
[1 ] Leber, C. Collection des meilleurs dissertations. . . à l’histoire de France (ed. 1838), I, xv.
[1 ] Sismondi, J. C. L. Histoire des français (ed. 1836), I, iii–iv.
[1 ] Beginning of Ch. 4, Bk. IX, of the History of Germany in the Time of the Reformation. Sämmtliche Werke, V, 102.
[1 ] Introduction to Bk. V of the History of the Popes. Ibid., XXXVIII, 1.
[2 ] Introduction to the History of Germany in the Time of the Reformation. Ibid., I, 1.
[1 ] This phrase of Ranke’s, er will blos zeigen, wie es eigentlich gewesen (Preface to the Histories of the Romance and German Peoples. Ibid., XXXIII-XXXIV, vii), contains the essence of his philosophy of history; and it is significant of the influence of his ideas that this simple phrase, the most famous and the most quoted of all of Ranke’s words, should have become a kind of gospel text for historians in the nineteenth century.
[2 ] Ranke’s ideas as to the significance of history are frequently suggested briefly in the introductions to the various books of his histories, particularly the Reformation, the Popes, and the History of England. They are set forth at greater length in his autobiography and correspondence, Sämmtliche Werke, LIII-LIV (Zur eigenen Lebensgeschichte); in the articles he contributed to the short-lived Historische-politischen Zeitschrift with which he was connected, Sämmtliche Werke, XLIX-L (Deutschland and Frankreich im 19 Jahrhundert); and in the address delivered upon his inauguration as Professor of History at Berlin in 1836, Ibid., XXIV, 280.
[1 ] De Maistre, J. “Considérations sur la France”; Oeuvres (ed. 1875), I, 68.