Tomorrow is Thomas Jefferson’s birthday. As a thinker, writer, and statesman, Jefferson stands among the greatest Americans. Whatever might be said against him — and much is said against him today — no one in human history has done more to advance the cause of human freedom. The principles of civil liberty are set forth with unrivaled clarity and eloquence in the Declaration of Independence. The principles of religious liberty are set forth with equal clarity and eloquence in the Virginia Statute of Religious Liberty. Both documents were the work of Thomas Jefferson. Together they form the core of the scholarship of the politics of freedom.
Before the American Founding, a government that combined majority rule and minority rights was unimaginable. In Europe, for example, countless thousands had been mercilessly slaughtered because some, but not others, believed in transubstantiation. No Catholic and no Protestant, and no Jew, would agree to have matters of faith decided by a political majority, any more than by a king. So long as political authority remained grounded in sectarian religion, free government in a nation of multiple religions was impossible.
But the Americans, led by the lights of Jefferson, solved this problem. They understood that self-government is possible only if sectarian religious disputes are taken out of the political process. This requires a ground of morality and political rights that transcends the boundaries of sectarian religions, and which mutually obliges all individuals, regardless of who belongs to the majority or minority of the political community. That ground is the doctrine of individual natural rights — rights that exist independent of religious beliefs, and are accessible by unassisted human reason. As Jefferson declared in his Virginia Statute, a man’s religious opinions have no more bearing upon his civil rights than his opinions in physics or geometry, because a man’s civil rights rest upon his natural rights.
One reason Jefferson was asked to draft the Declaration of Independence was his authorship, two years before the Declaration, of the “Summary View of the Rights of British America.” Addressed to the King of England, this was unquestionably the ablest and most comprehensive statement of America’s cause. It ended with the fiery peroration: “…let it [not] be proposed that our properties within our own territories shall be taxed or regulated by any power on earth but our own. The God who gave us life, gave us liberty at the same time: the hand of force may destroy, but cannot disjoin them. This, Sire, is our last, our determined resolution…” Can there be any doubt that the Continental Congress picked the right man for the Fourth of July?
Of course, not all Americans think Jefferson worth celebrating. Among the many criticisms leveled against him, the most widespread and persistent is that Jefferson did not believe blacks to be the equal of whites. The truth is that Jefferson’s beliefs on this subject were varied and skeptical. Further, the opinion that blacks might be intellectually or physically inferior to whites was shared by virtually every one of Jefferson’s highly educated contemporaries, not to mention the less highly educated. This remained true even of the most radical abolitionists of the antebellum period. However melancholy the fact, it is nonetheless fact.
On one point, however, Jefferson was unwavering. Whether equal or unequal in talents or abilities, blacks have the same natural rights — the same right to be free — as human beings of all other colors. As Jefferson explained, “whatever be their degree of talent, it is no measure of their rights. Because Sir Isaac Newton was superior to others in understanding, he was not therefore lord of the person or property of others.”
After more than 200 years of American independence, America is still struggling with racism. Betraying the words of Martin Luther King Jr., which were the words of Thomas Jefferson, there remains great political pressure in America, most egregiously on the part of government, to identify Americans by the color of their skin, not the content of their character.
If America is ever to truly get beyond race — if Americans are ever to view one another simply as fellow citizens and friends — we will do so only by embracing the color-blind and universal principles of Thomas Jefferson.
On one occasion, Abraham Lincoln said of Thomas Jefferson that he “was, is, and perhaps will continue to be, the most distinguished politician of our history.” On another he declared,
“The principles of Jefferson are the definitions and axioms of free society.”
Lincoln was right. Let us join Lincoln’s celebration of the principles of Jefferson — the definitions and axioms of free society — and wish Mr. Jefferson a happy birthday.