The duty to preserve life and liberty & to pursue happiness

3PictureMortonWhiteJefferson doesn’t encourage us to retrace his thinking in writing the Declaration of Independence. He writes copiously during his long retirement, but when someone asks him about the origins of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” and the rest of the Declaration’s more epistemological lines, he claims only to have “harmonized” views contained in “elementary books of public right.” His list of authors amounts to only “Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney, etc.” I was glad see that “etc.” made flesh this week while reading American philosopher and Princeton professor Morton White’s book The Philosophy of the American Revolution (1976). White ties Jefferson’s thought not only to Aristotle and Locke but also to the works of the German philosopher Samuel von Pufendorf (1632 – 1694), the Irish philosopher Francis Hutcheson (1694 – 1746), and the Swiss jurist Jean Jacques Burlamaqui (1694 – 1748), none of whom I knew anything about.

I found White’s book while reading another writer’s list of influences on the United States’ founding generation of political thinkers. David Hackett Fischer in his book Liberty and Freedom includes White’s book in a footnote substantiating his list of all the theories that have come before his own to explain American liberty and freedom:

. . . Greek democracy, Roman republicanism, natural rights in the Middle Ages, the civic humanism of the Renaissance, the theology of the Reformation, the English “commonwealth tradition” in the seventeenth century, British “opposition ideology” in the eighteenth century, the treatises of John Locke, the science of Isaac Newton, the writings of Scottish moral philosophers, the values of the Enlightenment, and the axioms of classical liberalism.1

White’s book, according to Fischer’s footnote, is supposed to assert the founders’ natural rights tradition theory mentioned above. It establishes that Jefferson, et al. were still on the rationalist side of the rationalist/utilitarian divide, but it challenges the internal consistency of the founders’ rationalism at several turns. It therefore doesn’t celebrate the influence of natural rights dating back to the Middle Ages on the founding generation’s thinking, but it proves that influence. It shows how the different founders, and the different philosophers before them, strive to maintain their claim to universally accessible natural rights and self-evident truths in the face of disagreements over the role of reason and conscience and in the face of challenges to universal truths.

White’s book certainly discusses, as its title suggests, the philosophy of the American Revolution – that is, the bounds of philosophical discussion between Locke’s rationalistic notion of natural law and what would later develop into Jeremy Bentham’s results-oriented utilitarianism.  But the discussion of these philosophical struggles has a single focus – a close analysis of the Declaration’s famous second sentence: “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.”2 This is chiefly where Pufendorf, Hutcheson, and Burlamaqui come in. White weaves these three early modern philosophers with Aristotle, Hooker, and Locke in part because, at least in Hutcheson’s and Burlamaqui’s cases, theirs were the latest words on natural rights3 and because, particularly in Burlamaqui’s case, Jefferson’s thinking in the preamble’s first draft so precisely matches theirs.

And it is the Declaration’s first draft with which White feels much more at home. The first draft’s equality clause reads as follows:

We hold these truths to be sacred & undeniable; that all men are created equal & independent, that from that equal creation they derive rights inherent & inalienable, among which are the preservation of life, & liberty & the pursuit of happiness . . .

(White helpfully employs parallel structure to untangle “Jefferson’s characteristically unsettling punctuation” in the rough draft to a more comprehensible “the preservation of life, the preservation of liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”)4 White’s book focuses on the different views of government reflected in the Declaration’s first and final drafts, and he finds that the revision is mostly a move from clarity to imprecision. To him, the first draft’s purpose is

to aid and abet men in attaining ends proposed by God: the preservation of life, the preservation of liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. But in the final version of the Declaration the purpose of government must be understood as merely that of making secure rights which have been given by God, which means making them secure against invasion.5

Jefferson, cagey and opaque as he often is, attributes the changes to Benjamin Franklin and John Adams and says that the changes were “merely verbal.” White doesn’t offer an historical account of why the changes were made, and he disagrees with Jefferson about the changes’ significance. White doesn’t say so, but I think Jefferson’s outward acquiescence to the changes stems from his desire to hang onto his claim to the Declaration’s authorship, the first among only three feats from his accomplished life that he has carved onto his tombstone at Monticello. (Even his consequential two-term presidency doesn’t make the cut.) But White sets Jefferson’s motives aside, whatever they are.

Although he eschews such historical speculation, White explodes Jefferson’s “merely verbal” explanation just as he annotates the “etc.” at the end of Jefferson’s list of philosophical influences. He establishes not only the first draft’s more active role for government in promoting virtue but also its more duty-oriented approach to rights and its use in explaining why Jefferson’s troika of inalienable rights ends with “the pursuit of happiness” instead of property, unlike most such formulations of rights in the states’ revolutionary documents.

I was surprised, with respect to the first draft’s vision of government, that White doesn’t mention a connection with Aristotle. The government’s role in aiding and abetting “men in attaining ends proposed by God” parallels Aristotle’s teleology and his concept of the state’s active role in promoting its citizens’ pursuit of happiness.

White also fails to point out both the more individualistic notion of rights we are left with in the final version and the more serious claim that the Continental Congress makes against King George III and Parliament as a result of the changes included in the final draft. In the final draft, George goes beyond merely failing to aid us in our pursuit of happiness; he also hinders us in it. Perhaps it is Jefferson’s often-conflicted feelings about the size and role of the federal government as well as this stronger accusation against English authority that causes Jefferson to accede to Franklin and Adams’s muddying of the philosophical waters in the final draft. But I catch myself here indulging again in my lifelong fascination with Jefferson’s variable mind.

So what were the clear waters White finds in the Declaration’s first draft? For starters, a more accurate application of the notion of self-evident truth. White breaks down Locke’s and other rationalists’ epistemology into two moves – an initial intuition and a logical deduction from that intuition. (White refers to Locke interchangeably as a rationalist and an intuitionist.) Strictly speaking, only what can be intuited as a truth is axiomatic and, therefore, self-evident. Deductions from that self-evident truth are just as sure, but a deduction by definition is not self-evident.

As we shall see, of the rights proclaimed in Jefferson’s famous sentence, White shows that only the equality clause is self-evident. White believes that Jefferson is on firmer ground when, in his rough draft, he calls “sacred & undeniable” the list of rights that includes “the preservation of life, & liberty & the pursuit of happiness.” Those rights are not self-evident but are derivative of self-evident truth, such as “all men are created equal & independent.” They are just as sure as self-evident truth – just as sacred and undeniable – but they are derivative of the truth that all men are created equal.

White never makes his best argument in this regard: perhaps it’s too obvious for him to point out. The rough draft’s language after “sacred & undeniable” makes explicit the derivative nature of the rights concerning life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness: “that from that equal creation they derive rights inherent & inalienable, among which are the preservation of life, & liberty & the pursuit of happiness . . . ” [emphasis added]. Our equality – our common status as God’s children – is the sure ontological foundation for our rights involving life and liberty.6

White also finds in Jefferson’s first draft a clear example of the eighteenth century notion of rights and duties.  Pufendorf and Burlamaqui influence the American revolutionaries to see a right as a moral power:

Burlamaqui defines a right as a power or a faculty which a man has to use his liberty and strength (ses forces naturelles) in a particular manner either in regard to himself or in respect to other men, so far as this exercise of his liberty and strength is approved by reason.7

Burlamaqui, like Pufendorf, sees a right as a power, and he finds that a power disassociated from morality is also disassociated from right. When power is “used in morally objectionable ways by the many it is called ‘license,’” White summarizes. Put another way, a right is “a power to use physical strength in conformity with, or not in violation of, natural law.”8 Many American social conservatives today complain that our culture has gotten too rights-oriented. Using the term “rights” in this modern manner, however, disassociates it from our natural-law heritage. Our rights, as White demonstrates, include duties and no “license.”9

We’re ready to see the connection between “LLPH” (life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness) and Burlamaqui’s influence on Jefferson. Burlamaqui’s rights stem from self-evident truths or “states,” all of them ontological in nature:

First of all, man is a creature of God, from whom he has received his life, his reason, and all the advantages he enjoys. Secondly, his is a being composed of body and soul who naturally loves himself and desires his own felicity. And, thirdly, he is a member of a species, all of whose members live with him on earth and in society.10

Each of these “states” has “a trio of different sorts of duties: duties toward God, duties toward oneself, and duties toward other human beings.” Burlamaqui infers these duties by reflecting “on the nature and states of man, which indicate the intentions of God with respect to man.”11 Aristotle’s teleology not only explains what Jefferson means by happiness, but it also through Burlamaqui and then Jefferson explains how we obtain our rights regarding life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness:

Since God gave us life, he must have proposed the preservation of our life. Since he gave us reason, he must have proposed for us the perfection of our reason. And since he created us with a desire for our own happiness, he must have proposed for us the pursuit of that happiness.[Id., emphasis original.]

(“Happiness” in the declaration, of course, is not the vague and transitory notion of happiness we associate with the word today. It is Aristotle’s idea of happiness – the happiness that comes as a result of a full life pursuing the ends for which one is created.) These ends then translate into duties, which in turn translate into rights (that is, into moral power):

Here we see the final link in the chain which begins with man’s God-created essence, moves to the ends God proposed for him, and from that to what God wants man to do, namely, to man’s duties. But once we have shown that we have the duty to preserve our lives, it is easy to deduce that we have the right to preserve them; once we have shown that we have the duty to pursue happiness, it is easy to deduce that we have the right to pursue it; and once we have shown that, having been created members of the same species who are equal by nature and therefore mutually independent, we can know, first, that each of us has a duty not to dominate the other and, secondly, that each of us has a right to preserve this freedom from domination.12

This “chain” from essence to duties and from duties to rights is reinforced in the rough draft by the abstract noun “preservation” that provides for life and liberty what the abstract noun “pursuit” provides for happiness – something for us to do. That is, we have duties. While White doesn’t point out the rough draft’s parallel structure, he shows me something I wouldn’t have known from the text: the “use of ‘sacred’ is characteristically Burlamaquian because of its religious connotation,” and “the reference to ‘inherent’ rights . . . is reminiscent of Burlamaqui’s constant harping on the fact that the laws of nature follow from the essence of man and his states as created by God . . .” The entire sentence in the Declaration’s rough draft, as White puts it, is “a telescoping of Burlamaqui’s argument.”13

What about property? As White points out, property couldn’t exist in the final draft since under no theory of natural law could property be considered unalienable. The notion that “one may alienate what one owns is at least as old as Aristotle.”14 But the bigger point is that the right to property, unlike the right to preserve life and liberty and the right to pursue happiness, is an adventitious right. Many natural law theorists, such as Burlamaqui, believed in a distinction between “primary or primitive natural law, which, Burlamaqui says, ‘immediately arises from the primitive constitution of man, as God himself has established it, independent of any human act,’ and secondary natural law, which ‘supposes some human act or establishment.’” When man modifies his primitive state, he creates adventitious rights, “which are properly the work of man” and not God. Like Locke, Blackstone, and other natural law theorists and jurists, Burlamaqui recognizes an original right to a common use of property that is restrained and limited when individuals claim private property. Although, like Locke, Burlamaqui asserts a limited right to individual property, he ranks it among the adventitious rights.15

It is worth quoting White’s excellent summary of his argument, at least insofar as I’ve covered it here:

. . . I cannot accept the statement [contained in Daniel Boorstin’s 1948 book The Lost World of Thomas Jefferson] that Jefferson’s “natural rights’ theory of government left all men naturally free from duties to their neighbors: no claims could be validated except by the Creator’s plan, and the Creator seemed to have created no duties but only rights.” This, I believe, can be maintained only if one neglects the Lockean and Burlamaquian roots of Jefferson’s thinking which require reference to duties not mentioned in the Declaration but implicit in Jefferson’s telescoped derivation of rights. Jefferson never could have derived his rights from equal creation without statements of God-imposed duties of natural law as intermediate steps.16

I believe that if our country would grasp the import of each phrase of that final sentence, we’d understand most of what we need to know about our nation’s founding.

  1. David Hackett Fischer, Liberty and Freedom: A Visual History of America’s Founding Ideas, at 2 and 739 – 740.
  2. White, supra, at 246 – 247.
  3. “Having published on natural law in 1747, Burlamaqui was . . . much closer to Jefferson in time than Hooker, publishing in 1593, or than Locke, publishing in 1690, and hence more likely to be thought of by Jefferson as uttering ‘the last word’ on the matters that concerned the author of the Declaration with regard to natural law as it affected individuals,” White says. Id. at 161.
  4. Id. at 165 – 166.
  5. Id. at 250. Emphasis original.
  6. Fischer describes the competing heritages of freedom and liberty, the first from Northern European tribes, from whom we get the term “freedom,” and the second from the ancient Romans, from whom we get the term “liberty.” Freedom was gradually understood to be a birthright, but in ancient Rome liberty implied inequality since one’s liberty required others’ slavery. Fischer, supra, at 4 – 6. The struggle between the free states and the slave states before and during the American Civil War can be understood as a struggle between these competing notions of freedom or liberty, with Virginia’s John Randolph and South Carolina’s John Calhoun attacking Jefferson’s equality clause as error, while Lincoln later brandishes the clause in his Gettysburg Address.
  7. White, supra, at 188 – 189.
  8. Id. at 190.
  9. Fischer agrees with this assessment for historical reasons. Examining the Northern European tribes’ notion of freedom from which the Declaration’s equality clause is derived, Fischer says, “A person who was born to freedom in an ancient tribe had a sacred obligation to serve and support the folk, and to keep the customs of a free people, and to respect the rights of others on pain of banishment. In modern America too many people have forgotten this side of our inheritance. They think of liberty as license without responsibility, and freedom as entitlement without obligation. To think this way in the modern world is to remember only half of these ancient traditions.” Fisher, supra, at 8 (emphasis original).
  10. White, supra, at 162.
  11. Id.
  12. Id. at 162 – 163.
  13. Id. at 163 – 164.
  14. Id. at 214.
  15. Id. at 215 – 216.
  16. Id. at 254. Fischer from a linguistic point of view also makes the connection between freedom’s historical foundation in the notion of equality and our duties to one another. “Freedom . . . derives from a large family of ancient languages in northern Europe. The English word free is related to the Norse fri, the German frei, the Dutch vrij, the Flemish vrig, the Celtic rheidd, and the Welsh rhydd. These words share an unexpected root. They descend from the Indo-European priya or friya or riya, which meant dear or beloved. The English words freedom and free have the same root as friend, as do their German cousins frei and Freund. Free meant someone who was joined to a tribe of free people by ties of kinship and rights of belonging.” Fisher, supra, at 5.


G. K. ChesteronOn Liberty and inequality. G.K. Chesterton would have been my kind of Union man had he been an American. While he faulted the English Socialists for denying the poor their humanity in the name of an ideal, he faulted the Tories for dong the same in the name of tradition’s accident.

Chesterton’s Edmund Burke was Lincoln’s John C. Calhoun – an “atheist” – in political theory, at least – who denied that we were all created in the image of God (Chesterton), that we were all created equal (Lincoln). From Part Five (The Home of Man) of Chesterton’s book What’s Wrong with the World:

A cultivated Conservative friend of mine once exhibited great distress because in a gay moment I once called Edmund Burke an atheist. I need scarcely say that the remark lacked something of biographical precision; it was meant to. Burke was certainly not an atheist in his conscious cosmic theory, though he had not a special and flaming faith in God, like Robespierre. Nevertheless, the remark had reference to a truth which it is here relevant to repeat. I mean that in the quarrel over the French Revolution, Burke did stand for the atheistic attitude and mode of argument, as Robespierre stood for the theistic. The Revolution appealed to the idea of an abstract and eternal justice, beyond all local custom or convenience. If there are commands of God, then there must be rights of man. Here Burke made his brilliant diversion; he did not attack the Robespierre doctrine with the old mediaeval doctrine of jus divinum (which, like the Robespierre doctrine, was theistic), he attacked it with the modern argument of scientific relativity; in short, the argument of evolution. He suggested that humanity was everywhere molded by or fitted to its environment and institutions; in fact, that each people practically got, not only the tyrant it deserved, but the tyrant it ought to have. “I know nothing of the rights of men,” he said, “but I know something of the rights of Englishmen.” There you have the essential atheist. His argument is that we have got some protection by natural accident and growth; and why should we profess to think beyond it, for all the world as if we were the images of God! We are born under a House of Lords, as birds under a house of leaves; we live under a monarchy as niggers live under a tropic sun; it is not their fault if they are slaves, and it is not ours if we are snobs. Thus, long before Darwin struck his great blow at democracy, the essential of the Darwinian argument had been already urged against the French Revolution. Man, said Burke in effect, must adapt himself to everything, like an animal; he must not try to alter everything, like an angel. The last weak cry of the pious, pretty, half-artificial optimism and deism of the eighteenth century came in the voice of Sterne, saying, “God tempers the wind to the shorn lamb.” And Burke, the iron evolutionist, essentially answered, “No; God tempers the shorn lamb to the wind.” It is the lamb that has to adapt himself. That is, he either dies or becomes a particular kind of lamb who likes standing in a draught.

I was so glad this morning, reading this. The debate surrounding the equality clause isn’t only an American debate. Chesterton vs. Burke; Lincoln vs. Calhoun and Stevens; Jaffa vs. Rehnquist and Bork. A moderation founded on a theological understanding of the rights of man vs. a conservatism founded on tradition and historicism.

True poetry of possession

I am well aware that the word “property” has been defied in our time by the corruption of the great capitalists. One would think, to hear people talk, that the Rothchilds and the Rockefellers were on the side of property. But obviously they are the enemies of property because they are enemies of their own limitations. They do not want their own land but other people’s. When they remove their neighbor’s landmark, they also remove their own. A man who loves a little triangular field ought to love it because it is triangular; anyone who destroys the shape, by giving him more land, is a thief who has stolen a triangle. A man with the true poetry of possession wishes to see the wall where his garden meets Smith’s garden, the hedge where his farm touches Brown’s. He cannot see the shape of his own land unless he sees the edges of his neighbor’s. It is the negation of property that the Duke of Sutherland should have all the farms in one estate, just as it would be the negation of marriage if he had all our wives in one harem.

 – Chesterton, G. K. (Gilbert Keith). What’s Wrong with the World. 1910. Kindle Edition. Page 48.


Defied one,
think to hear:
people talk

the side of
enemies –
their own

other. They
mark their own
who love afield

triangular. Love is
triangular – true poetry
where garden meets garden,

where his touches
cannot see the shape
of his own harem.

Inspired by Dave Bonta’s erasure project at Via Negativa.


On Prose to the Gettysburg Address’s poetry. “A writer’s new works are, more than most anything, new attempts to frame or answer old, nagging questions.” I wrote that in the context of Lincoln’s recurrent themes. Walter Lippmann, I just discovered, wrote the same thing in the context of philosophic writing:

Philosophies . . . are the very soul of the philosopher projected, and to the discerning critic they may tell more about him than he knows about himself. In this sense the man’s philosophy is his autobiography; you may read in it the story of his conflict with life.

And that’s what my “Marginal” writing is. I want to treat my blog like an ever-fattening book. I find new stuff that I would write in an old post’s margins. I can’t leave well enough alone.

The final video

I end my video series to Christians on American government. This video covers Constitutional hermeneutics, and it includes a rather lengthy series conclusion. A book containing a transcript of the video series as well as over two hundred footnotes that document and deepen the videos’ content is sold here.

Video 5 is out.

Video 5 of my series to the American church entitled, “The Nature of Government.” The previous videos are at The next and final video should be out in a week or two. (Sorry I tend to look down in these videos. The teleprompter is the laptop’s screen, which sits below the built-in web cam. It ain’t too professional.)

That is cool.

3PictureRiskBoardShutting down the federal government, threatening to cause the nation to default, threatening to secede from the Union – it’s all so cool. As kids we used to call tactics like these “going sui.” One figured he’d lost the game, so he spent his remaining strength – be they armies in Risk or mortgaged houses and deeds in Monopoly – in suicide-bomber mode, taking down his chief opponent with him if he could.

(I don’t know why Speaker Boehner, who earlier this year said that “trying to put Obamacare on [a budget resolution] risks shutting down the government,” now says this isn’t a game.)

But the threat of going sui can sometimes keep you in the game. Before the Civil War as well as today, the states’ rights crowd knows how to hold onto power as long as possible.

Look at the House of Representatives. Even before things really got rolling, the Constitution gave the South unduly high representation in Congress by spotting it 0.6 of a person in each census for every slave it could import or otherwise generate. Today’s gerrymandered districts similarly help out the conservative cause, so that losing the House by over a million votes last fall translated into a healthy Republican majority.

Look at the Senate. Before the Civil War, Congress was careful to keep a balance of power by granting statehood in batches that would maintain a slave-state – free-state equilibrium despite the free states’ greater population. Today, the expansion of the filibuster by both rule and practice means that almost nothing gets done unless a minority of forty permits it.

And when these expanded versions of gerrymandering and filibustering aren’t enough, some states’ rights leaders threaten to support their states’ secession from the Union, as Texas Governor Rick Perry has done, or vote to decimate the nation’s economy, as Florida Rep. Ted Yoho plans to do later this month.

Lincoln dealt with this kind of extortion, and in his 1860 Cooper Union speech he compared it to a stick-up:

But you will not abide the election of a Republican President! In that supposed event, you say, you will destroy the Union; and then, you say, the great crime of having destroyed it will be upon us! That is cool. A highwayman holds a pistol to my ear, and mutters through his teeth, “Stand and deliver, or I shall kill you, and then you will be a murderer!”

Similarly (the argument goes), today’s Union defenders will have only their profligate-spending selves to blame if Tea Party people, one-upping the highwayman, succeed this month in burning down the fiscal house.

Majority rule, then, is of little interest to states’ rights adherents. But the reason isn’t simply tactical – isn’t something to ignore when you don’t win presidential elections, be it 1860 or 2012. Majority rule, along with its foundational premise that all men are created equal, is something that state-sovereignty believers have had an uneasy relationship with since their doctrine’s inception.

And stockpiling assault weapons for a potential rebellion against the federal government? Way, way cool.

P.S. – This week’s Time cover is a classic:



On “The basis of liberal-conservative rapprochement.” In his 1955 book The Public Philosophy, Walter Lippmann points out how progressives need conservatism:

. . . no one generation of men are capable of creating for themselves the arts and sciences of a high civilization. Men can know more than their ancestors did if they start with a knowledge of what their ancestors had already learned. they can do advanced experiments if they do not have to learn all over again how to do the elementary ones. That is why a society can be progressive only if it conserves its traditions. (136)

While Lippmann here uses an example more suited for science or mathematics, the larger context of his claim is political or civil.

Riposte 5 (class)

“I believe my dear sir, that a class is the greatest drawback in the world. You must do everything which the class does and nothing else.”

– John Randolph of Roanoke, while at Columbia University, to his stepfather St. George Tucker in 1788 (from David Johnson’s John Randolph of Roanoke, pages 21 – 22)

“[Woodrow] Wilson, though an excellent teacher, was not a very good student, in the sense that he had no real knack for learning from other people. ‘Everything of progress comes from one’s private reading,’ he said. He stopped attending class [at Johns Hopkins] and arranged to complete his [Ph. D. there] by studying on his own.”

– Jill Lepore’s book review in this week’s New Yorker.