Alexander Campbell and Thomas Jefferson
A Comparative Study of Two Old Virginians
NATURAL LAW AND HUMAN RIGHTS
During the eighteen days that he spent writing the Declaration of lndependence, Thomas Jefferson penned a single statement that stands as one of the great monuments in the history of ideas: "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." In his first draft he had written "sacred and undeniable" instead of self-evident, added "independent" to equal and "inherent" to unalienable. All these words were laden with much meaning in the mind of Jefferson.
Lincoln said of this statement: "All honor to Jefferson--to the man who, in the concrete pressure of a struggle for national independence by a single people, had the coolness, forecast, and capacity to introduce into a merely revolutionary document, an abstract truth, and so embalm it there, that today, and in all coming days, it shall be a rebuke and a stumbling block to the very harbingers of reappearing tyranny and oppression." (Quoted by Peterson, op cit, p. 162) Lincoln saw in this document "a moral principle" that gave life to the new republic, and he believed it was this principle of the liberty and rights of the individual that would save the union in his own day. Borrowing from a biblical proverb, he likened Jefferson's statement to "a word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in pictures of silver," his words being the golden apple and the union with its constitution the picture. "So let us act," said Lincoln, "that neither picture or apple shall ever be blurred, or bruised or broken."
Jefferson believed in natural (or "inherent" to use his other word) rights. By this he meant that by virtue of being a man the individual has freedoms and privileges. They are God-given, innate, and undeniable. The purpose of government is to preserve and protect the natural rights of man, among which are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Even in a natural state (before he forms government) man has these rights, and civil power is for the purpose of realizing these rights more easily and more equally for all men.
He admitted that these ideas were not original with him, and he concedes that the main points in the Declaration came from several of his reading sources. Thomas Paine is one thinker that inspired these ideas, the man who was partly responsible for both the American and French Revolutions. Paine shows how twenty people thrown together by accident in an uninhabited country would each be a sovereign in his own natural right. His will would be his law. Yet he would be in danger of injustice from one or all of the others, so his power to defend his rights would not be equal to his rights. He therefore agrees to civil law, which should be a constitutional expression of natural law. There are two kinds of rights: those of thinking, speaking, forming and giving opinions, and all those that can be exercised by the individual apart from outside assistance. The second kind has to do with the acquiring of property and personal protection against injury or tyranny.
Paine taught that the first kind of rights, such as freedom to think and speak, are never surrendered by the individual; but he does give up the right to take the law into his own hands, which he has in the natural state, in order to make civil law work. And so Jefferson wrote into the Declaration: "to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed."
The last phrase may well have been inspired by John Locke who said: "Men being by nature all free, equal, and independent, no one can be put out of this estate and subjected to the political power of another without his own consent." As we shall see in the case of Campbell also, Jefferson was a faithful disciple of Locke, including the philosopher's ideas on religious freedom such as he taught in his Letters on Toleration in which he called for the separation of church and state.
But Jefferson did not follow Locke in his emphasis upon the right of property as a natural right. Locke said in his Treatise of Civil Government that "The great and chief end of men's uniting into commonwealths, and putting themselves under government, is the preservation of their property." While "property" was included in the rights listed by the First Continental Congress and in the Virginia Bill of Rights, it was conspicuously absent in the Declaration of Independence. That this was a studied omission is indicated by the fact that when Lafayette presented to Jefferson while he was in France that country's "Declaration of the Rights of Man" Jefferson put in brackets the words right of property, thus eliminating it from the list of natural rights.
The significance of this may be related to his agrarianism. He always believed that the agricultural class was the only productive class, and he had no confidence in the laborers in the cities. He said: "I think our governments will remain virtuous for many centuries; as long as they are chiefly agricultural . . . When they get piled upon one another in large cities, as in Europe, they will become corrupt as in Europe." (Russell, Jefferson, Champion of the Free Mind, p. 147) In the same vein he spoke of the ploughman acting in a moral case before a professor because he has not been "led astray by artificial rules." It was the gentleman farmer who lived the very best life, social as well as moral.
Like Jefferson, the Sage of Bethany also idealized the gentleman farmer and expressed distrust of cities. After one trip among the city folk in 1843 he wrote: "The American cities, like all other cities, are not favorable to the prevalence of pure religious influences. Like frontier settlements, they are good theatres for Methodism and such forms of religion as require more soul than spirit, more animal feeling than Christian knowledge." He went on to point out that it is a mistake to suppose that because the city folk dress more fashionably and understand trade and politics better that they are therefore superior. It is "a grand and pernicious mistake" to suppose them superior in science, piety, or morality." He added: "Those living in favorable rural positions are more learned in Biblical science and better acquainted with the Christian Institution and with all the ways and means of exhibiting Divine truth in its proper attractions than those with whom it has been my lot to mingle in the great cities." (Mill. Harb. 1843, p. 64)
To his graduates at Bethany College he said: "An American farmer, well educated, is in my humble opinion one of the most elevated in rank of all earth's noblemen and lords." The farmer, he said, has leisure for his own personal improvement and to serve his country. He is freer from temptation and is more independent--"a position that throws him more into communion with God and Nature than any other." (Mill. Harb. 1844, 360)
Campbell was altogether as conscious and articulate about the rights of man as Jefferson. Early in his career he expressed gratitude for "the most illustrious of all national conventions, that which framed this Magna Charta of American liberty." He said in one of his first debates: "Had sectarian priests framed our Constitution do you think that I, my friends, dare have stood here as I do this day . . . " (Quoted by D. R. Lindley, Apostle of Freedom, p. 68)
He referred to the principle "All men are born free" as golden words. Jefferson, however, was cautious to say that men are created free and equal, not born that way. There is a difference. Jefferson meant "independent" (a word used in his first draft before others called for changes), for he realized that no one is born either free or equal. It is interesting that one of Campbell's expression of human rights is precisely that used by Jefferson in his first draft of the Declaration: man has, as Campbell put it, "certain inherent and inalienable rights, of which he cannot be divest with impunity." When he said this he was speaking of man's right to a voice in the government (See Lunger, Political Ethics of Alexander Campbell, p. 91)
He and Jefferson both followed Locke in asserting the right of a people to rebel against tyranny. Locke as well as Paine inspired the American and French Revolutions. Sovereignty is always in the people rather than in the government. The people select their representatives, whether monarch or president, and they can ask for any office back that they have bestowed in case of injustice. If the magistrate does not surrender his office peacefully, the people can depose him by force. This is the principle of revolution, the safeguard against tyranny. It is the will of the people that counts.
Campbell and Jefferson attempted at various times to list the rights of man, which they believed grew out of the natural law. The Sage of Monticello not only emphasized life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, as in the Declaration of Independence, but he also mentioned that man is endowed with a sense of right and wrong, so there is the right to make moral discriminations and to live a morally responsible life. He said, "The moral sense or conscience is as much a part of man as his leg or arm." Each man has the right to care for his own soul and to think for himself. Free inquiry, right to opinion, and right to dissent he also stressed.
The Sage of Bethany often spoke of political and Christian rights as based on natural rights. He mentions the preservation of life and property, the pursuit of happiness, seeking food and entertainment for mind and body, the forming of character and reputation as political rights of all. He refers to "Christian health and prosperity" as the peculiar rights of Christians. (Chris. Bapt. 7, p. 4) Like Locke but unlike Jefferson, he made much of the right of private property as natural. In his debate with Robert Owen he suggested that society loses its meaning without private property. In this debate and on other occasions he proved himself to be one of the first to oppose the various communistic enterprises of his day. He scorned Owen for endeavoring to abolish private property, contending that it is part of man's nature and society for him to bargain and buy, to build and improve for his own enrichment. The Sage of Bethany must be listed as one of the first anti-communists in American history.