With the recent passing of the 239th Anniversary of the United States’ Declaration of Independence from Great Britain, it is important for Secular Humanists to look back at history and learn from our forefathers, especially those whose thoughts helped develop what we call Humanism today. Of course, in the United States, one such figure would without a doubt be Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence.
Jefferson’s importance cannot be overstated. As the author of the Declaration, it was he who wrote those immortal words: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, and that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” In this single sentence, Jefferson summarized some of the single most important humanistic values: all humans are equal, and our rights must be protected from those who would seek to impose tyranny upon us, be they kings, aristocrats, priests, or faux-democratic despots like Oliver Cromwell or Napoleon.
With the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson rested his argument for American resistance to the English Crown not on economic or political issues, but on morality. All authority must be questioned, and if “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.” Humans have a right to think freely, and to question others’ claims. In short, what Jefferson and the Declaration were advocating was freethought.
While some naysayers might argue that Jefferson was simply summarizing the popular views of his time, his decision to rest the cause of American Independence on these moral and philosophical grounds; presenting the ideas in clear, understandable language, has become a rallying cry for those of humanistic inclinations today in the United States and around the world. Indeed, Jefferson himself expressed the hope that the Declaration would not be seen as simply a document separating the United States from England, but rather a statement for the future about what the goals of this new nation were to be.
Following this idealism, Jefferson was the strongest advocate of democracy during the early years of our republic, denouncing the fact that only white, landowning men were allowed to vote, and supporting the expansion of suffrage. When his opponents tried to push through the Alien and Sedition acts, which effectively made it illegal to protest against the US Government, Jefferson submitted his Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions, calling for Americans to stand up against the trampling of their First Amendment Rights. And, as many of us are aware today, Jefferson was a religious skeptic who was one of the strongest defenders of separation of church and state in the United States, being the author of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. Also a strong advocate of universal public education, Jefferson was the creator of the nation’s first secular educational facility: the University of Virginia.
But one area about Jefferson which many Humanists do not seem to be aware of are his views on economics. Jefferson was a staunch opponent of the wealthy aristocracy, having pushed through the ban on primogeniture in Virginia, removing some of the last vestiges of feudalism. He also denounced Alexander Hamilton’s plans for a National Bank, as such a step would take economic power away from local, democratic legislatures and into the hands of the undemocratic national government. But, most importantly, Jefferson emphasized the importance of helping the poor. Commenting that the poor were the “most numerous of all classes,” Jefferson advocated land reform, granting free land to the poor in return for their farming of that land. This position was not at all popular with the wealthy landlords of the time, but it was the driving force behind Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase, doubling the size of the United States.
Here Jefferson shows us that a humanistic moral system must include sympathy and concern for those who are less fortunate in society, and hopefully the eventual abolition of poverty itself. After all, the people are who government is supposed to serve in the first place.
It was out of his concern for the lower classes in society that Jefferson endorsed the French Revolution. Although that revolution later spiraled down into a bloodbath, Jefferson saw what many could not, and that was that the French Revolution was born out of a deep need to change society, to restructure social relations, and to help the masses who suffered under the oppression of monarchist rule. It is also no surprise here that Jefferson was a strong supporter of contemporary radical Thomas Paine, saying about Paine’s seminal work The Rights of Man “I am extremely pleased to find this will be reprinted, and that something is at length to be publicly said against the political heresies which have sprung up against us.” Jefferson even maintained his connections to Paine even after other Founders like Hamilton and Washington had distanced themselves from him.
It was also out of his concern for the common people that Jefferson denounced the corporatism of Alexander Hamilton and the Federalist Party. The beginnings of early capitalism were in motion at this time, and Jefferson stood as a humanizing influence on the rapidly industrializing world. In addition to the unequal relationships between labor and capitalists, Jefferson also emphasized the damage capitalist industrialism had on the environment, criticizing over-forestation among other environmental hazards. He even went so far as to comment, “A change in our climate, however, is taking place…snows are less frequent and less deep.” Jefferson rightfully predicted the influence profit-motivated industrialism would wind up having on the world: ecological crises which threaten the livelihood of all humans. As the effects of climate change continue to make themselves known, humanity would do well to learn from Jefferson here.
Now, all of that is great, but what about Jefferson’s views on slavery? What about his racism? Jefferson did remain a staunch opponent of slavery throughout his entire career, making numerous covert proposals to abolish or at least limit the institution in his days in the Virginia Legislature. Jefferson also advocated public education in part because he hoped it would encourage skepticism and freethought, which would hopefully cause the questioning of and gradual overthrow of slavery. However, it is also true that when fighting to oppose Hamilton’s economic policies and the anti-democratic conspiracy he saw behind them, Jefferson made alliances with southern slaveholders. Despite his idealism, as a politician and as President he was pushed into pragmatic policies which opposed Hamiltonian capitalism at the expense of allowing slavery to continue. This could be said to be his greatest failing.
Although it can be tempting to place blame upon Jefferson’s shoulders for this, it is important to keep matters in perspective: Jefferson’s political career would have been over if he had freed his slaves, or made any move against the south’s entrenched slave power. But, more than his actions, Jefferson’s words did more than any other person to undermine slavery. How could a nation based upon the premise that “all men are created equal and are endowed by their creator with unalienable rights” continue to allow human beings to be kept in slavery? In the idealistic proclamations of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson had enshrined the moral goals to which the nation aspired. And thus, opposition to slavery was acting in exactly the Jeffersonian democratic spirit which the man did so much to create in this country.
Jefferson, although great, was also flawed, and he was unable to achieve everything he wanted to. Hamilton’s capitalism ultimately won out, and still today our republic is dominated by the extremely wealthy. And of course, slavery continued for another forty years after Jefferson’s death, and its heritage can still be seen in the racism that remains alive in America to this day. But, where he was truly right was in his ideas, Jefferson emphasized the importance of democracy, of the environment, and of people and humanity ourselves instead of religious commandments or capitalist profit.
Although Jefferson failed in his efforts to protect the United States as a secular and humanistic democracy, his rich heritage of ideas give us a staging point from which to pick up the fight. Like Jefferson, the Humanists of the future will stand against religious ignorance and capitalist greed, to try and build a better, more democratic, more humanist, republic.