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Category Archives: Natural rights

These two things are of supreme importance.

I have safely received the copy of your history of the American revolution … it is a happy circumstance for our country that it’s fortunes interest the eloquent writers of your country and through them find their way to the notice of the world … inasmuch as to they presented to mankind the first example in Modern times of a people asserting succesfully the right of self government, and establishing that government among themselves by common consent.
To Jean Chas, September 3, 1801

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Visionary leaders cling to founding principles.
Chas was a French journalist who sent his book to Jefferson months before. The President thanked him and expressed his appreciation for skilled foreign writers who documented America’s victory 20 years earlier. It wasn’t for vanity but for the example and hope it presented to other nations.

That example presented the only modern occurrence of two fundamental truths about America:
1. Its citizens had the right to govern themselves.
2. Its government functioned only with the consent of the governed.

These were still radical ideas in a time when other nations were ruled at will by kings, nobles and dictators. Jefferson believed America’s example was destined to adopted eventually by other nations, and writers like Chas furthered that end.

“Your talk was the hit of the day –
everyone was still talking about Thomas Jefferson during the banquet in the evening.”

Central Bank
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Thank you and thank God!

I join you, fellow-citizens, in rendering the tribute of thankfulness to the Almighty ruler, who … hath willed that the human mind shall be free in this portion of the globe: that society shall here know that the limit of it’s rightful power is the enforcement of social conduct; while the right to question the religious principles producing that conduct is beyond their cognisance [and for] the establishment here of liberty, equality of social rights, exclusion of unequal privileges civil & religious, & of the usurping domination of one sect over another …
To the Delaware Baptist Association, July 2. 1801

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Honest leaders appreciate the role of Providence.
214 years ago, approaching his first Independence Day as President, Jefferson penned these acknowledgements to the Delaware Baptists. Not to be confused with the Baptists of Danbury, CT, whose later letter prompted Jefferson’s famous wall-of-separation response, this congregation simply sent their congratulations to the new President, along with thanks to God for putting him in office.
Jefferson returned his thanks to them and to “the Almighty ruler,” who had established, not him, but rather one place on the globe where:
1. Men’s minds could be free;
2. Society limited government’s control to conduct, not thoughts;
3. Government could not question religious principles which produced that conduct; and
4. “Unequal privileges civil & religious” were excluded.

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Can you have one without the other?

The God who gave us life gave us liberty at the same time; the hand of force may destroy, but cannot disjoin them …………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………
Summary View of the Rights of British America, 1774

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Freedom-loving leaders know when half a loaf won’t do.
This thought was key in Jefferson’s final paragraph in Summary View, his appeal to the British king and parliament through the Continental Congress. The natural rights of life AND liberty came from the same source and were bound together, almost as one.

England could destroy both their lives and their liberty, but they could not separate them. Life without the liberty to enjoy it at one’s will (within that society’s self-imposed limits for the general welfare of all) would be a violation of natural law.

Jefferson followed this excerpt with these prescient words, “This, sire, is our last, our determined resolution; and that you will be pleased to … redress of these our great grievances, … ” England did not respond in any positive way. Two years later, Jefferson would reprise the thoughts of Summary View in a much shorter document, the Declaration of American Independence.

“He had them in the palm of his hand, from the moment he strode into the room …”
Assistant to the Executive Director, Illinois Association of School Boards.
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Right or wrong to behead the King and Queen?

The deed [beheading the king and queen] which closed the mortal course of these sovereigns, I shall neither approve nor condemn. I am not prepared to say that the first magistrate of a nation cannot commit treason against his country, or is unamenable [unanswerable] to it’s punishment: nor yet that where there is no written law, no regulated tribunal, there is not a law in our hearts, and a power in our hands, given for righteous employment in maintaining right, and redressing wrong … I should have shut up the Queen in a Convent, putting harm out of her power, and placed the king in his station, investing him with limited powers, which I verily believe he would have honestly exercised, according to the measure of his understanding.
Autobiography, 1821

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Sometimes leaders just lose their heads.
Jefferson didn’t take a position to “approve or condemn” guillotining the monarchs. His sentence which follows is a challenge to interpret, but here’s what I think he’s saying:
1. A king can be guilty of treason (but not saying this king was).
2. A king is not exempt from punishment for grievous actions.
3. When there is no written law and rulers have no limits, the people have the authority to take matters into their own hands and exercise it wisely for “maintaining right, and redressing wrong.”

Having the right to act in a certain way doesn’t mean it’s the only way or the best way. Jefferson would have chosen a different path. He would have neutered the queen’s influence by sequestering her. He would have given the king what limited powers he was capable of exercising honestly. This would have eliminated the void into which Napoleon stepped and the years-long terror unleashed on Europe.

“Mr. Patrick Lee did a wonderful job of portraying Thomas Jefferson …
He also tailored his presentation to fit in with our theme of ‘Exploring New Frontiers’.”
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What kind of aristocracy would you prefer?

I obtained leave to bring in a bill declaring tenants in tail to hold their lands in fee simple … To annul this privilege, and instead of an aristocracy of wealth, of more harm and danger, than benefit, to society, to make an opening for the aristocracy of virtue and talent, which nature has wisely provided for the direction of the interests of society, & scattered with equal hand through all it’s conditions, was deemed essential to a well ordered republic. To effect it no violence was necessary, no deprivation of natural right, but rather an enlargement of it by a repeal of the law.
Autobiography, 1821

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Democratic leaders seek equality of opportunity.
Colonial law in Virginia provided for lands to be inherited only by the eldest male child. Privileged individuals had long before obtained large grants of land from the king. The law allowed families to keep those vast holdings in very few hands as the generations passed. Those few hands achieved even greater wealth and power, eventually controlling much of the Colony. This resulted in “an aristocracy of wealth, of more harm and danger, than benefit, to society …”

Jefferson’s bill would end that practice and allow lands to be inherited by all heirs, not just one. This action would “make an opening for the aristocracy of virtue and talent.”

This contrast between aristocracies was a lifelong theme for Jefferson. It was not the wealthy and well-born who were to be favored but rather those in whom nature had broadly distributed talent and integrity. Those qualities were “essential to a well ordered republic.”

No revolution was needed for this revolutionary change. No one’s natural rights would be limited. Rather, those natural rights for all would be enlarged by the abolition of unnatural rights for a few.

Jefferson’s bill was adopted by the Virginia legislature.

“You gave us an excellent program! Our members were well served … “
New Mexico Federal Reserve Board
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‘I would like to be wrong about Negroes.’

I have received the favor of your letter of August 17th, and with it the volume you were so kind as to send me on the “Literature of Negroes.” Be assured that no person living wishes more sincerely than I do, to see a complete refutation of the doubts I have myself entertained and expressed on the …
To M. Henri Gregoire, February 25, 1809

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Wise leaders are willing, even eager to be proven wrong.
Abbe’ Gregoire was a Catholic priest and French abolitionist. He published An Enquiry Concerning the Intellectual and Moral Faculties, and Literature of Negroes in 1808 and sent a copy to the President. This was Jefferson’s reply. The letter is not long and can be read in its entirety at the link following the excerpt. Here is a summary of the letter:
1. He admitted he “entertained and expressed” doubts on blacks’ natural intellectual abilities and expressed those doubts “with great hesitation.” (Those doubts were in his 1782 book, Notes on Virginia.)
2. More than any other person, he would like to be proven wrong and see blacks’ intellect established on equal footing with whites’.
3. Those 1782 doubts were based on his limited experience within Virginia.
4. Opportunities for blacks to develop their minds were limited and even less to use them.
5. Their level of intellect should not affect their rights. The brilliance of Isaac Newton didn’t make him lord over anyone else.
6. Blacks were gaining in public opinion in other nations. He was hopeful they would be once again be on “equal footing with the other colors of the human family.”
7. He affirmed that the Abbe’s work would hasten “the day of their relief.”
8. He thanked the Abbe’ for enlightening him and concluded with sincere praise and esteem for his correspondent.

“You gave us an excellent program! Our members were well served … ”
Executive Director, New Mexico Federal Executive Board

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Who said you could do THAT?

I will now tell you what I do not like. First, the omission of a bill of rights, providing clearly and without the aid of sophism [Webster’s 7th New Collegiate: “an argument correct in form or appearance but actually invalid; esp: one used to deceive”] for freedom of religion, freedom of the press, protection against standing armies, restriction of monopolies, the eternal and unremitting force of the habeas corpus laws, and trials by jury in all matters of fact triable by the laws of the land and not by the laws of nations.
To James Madison, December 20, 1787

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Empowering leaders said you could do that.
222 years ago yesterday, December 15, 1791, Congress adopted the first 10 amendments to the U.S. Constitution, known as the Bill of Rights. Those rights were not included in the original document.
Jefferson had received a draft of the new Constitution in Paris where he was serving as America’s ambassador to France. In this letter, he first listed all of the things he did like. Then he listed what he did not like. First among those, was the absence of a bill of rights, guarantees of personal liberties.
Some thought a bill of rights unnecessary, since the states guaranteed rights for their own citizens. Others thought them unnecessary because they were natural rights, which government couldn’t infringe upon. Not good enough, said Jefferson. He thought those rights should be mandated from the national level. Almost four years after writing this letter, they were.
These were rights granted by the national government and were not state rights. It would not be until the Civil War and after that all the protections of the U. S. Constitution overruled any state provisions to the contrary. And it wouldn’t be until the civil rights era and the 1960s until those rights were interpreted to protect all Americans, not just white ones.

“Every county official I spoke with who attended the Opening Session
was grateful that we had you as a speaker.”
Executive Director, Association of Indiana Counties


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“It was a dark and stormy night … ”

Go on then in doing with your pen what in other times was done with the sword: shew that reformation is more practicable by operating on the mind than on the body of man, and be assured that it has not a more sincere votary [adherent] nor you a more ardent well-wisher than Yrs. &c.
To Thomas Paine, June 19, 1792

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Peaceful leaders encourage ideas over coercion.
Jefferson complimented Paine on his 1792 pamphlet, the Rights of Man, written in opposition to monarchies and anti-republican societies. Sixteen years earlier in 1776, Paine had written Common Sense, promoting American independence. In 1794, he wrote The Age of Reason, a dismissal of organized religion in favor of deism.

Jefferson always promoted peaceful change: education and the broad circulation, discussion and debate of ideas as essential for preserving the American republic. Far better to use the written word to convince than the sword to coerce.


Have you heard the phrase, “The pen is mightier than the sword.”? It was coined by English playwright and novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton for a 1839 play. The idea was not original with him, though this phrasing was. Others, including Jefferson in this letter nearly 50 years earlier, had expressed the same thought.


Why the title to this post? Just for fun. And because Edward Bulwer-Lytton, not only reinforced Jefferson’s idea of pen vs. sword, also wrote those well-worn words to open his 1830 novel, Paul Clifford.

“Your remarks … could not have been more impressive or appropriate … “
Interim Director, MO River Basin Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center, Nebraska City, NE

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“I’ll pay you back. Later. Really!”

Again suppose [French King] Louis XV … had said to the money lenders of Genoa, give us money that we may eat, drink, and be merry in our day; and on condition you will demand no interest till [our death and then] you shall then forever after receive an annual interest [from our successors] … The money is lent on these conditions, is divided among the living, eaten, drank, and squandered. Would the present generation be obliged to apply the produce of the earth and of their labour to replace their dissipations? Not at all.
To James Madison, September 6, 1789

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Honest leaders don’t bind future generations.
This comes from a long, complicated letter addressing the question whether the current generation can bind future ones. That binding could be through laws, a constitution, or debt.
In this excerpt, Jefferson suggested an outrageous scenario:
– Loan us money with no repayment during our lifetimes.
– We will spend that money on our own pleasure.
– When we die, our descendents will make exorbitant interest payments to you forever.

Would those descendents be obligated to repay? “Not at all,” said Jefferson.

Sound familiar? Are your children and grandchildren obligated to repay?

“Mr. Lee was able to engage the audience in remarkable ways.”
Program Coordinator, The Smithsonian Associates, Washington, D.C.

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Death, chain gangs and disfigurement!

On the subject of the Criminal law, all were agreed that the punishment of death should be abolished, except for treason and murder. And that, for other felonies, should be substituted hard labor in the public works, and in some cases, the Lex talionis [law of retaliation]. How this last revolting principle came to obtain our approbation [approval], I do not remember.
Autobiography, P. 44 in Koch & Peden’s Life and Selected Writings of Thomas Jefferson

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Compassionate leaders soften society’s harder edges.
In-between declaring independence and becoming governor three years later, Jefferson devoted much energy to rewriting the laws of colonial Virginia to suit the new free and independent state. One of his greatest efforts was to modernize the criminal code.

I can’t find it in writing now, but I recall reading there were many capital offenses in Virginia’s laws, perhaps more than 20 for which one could be put to death. Jefferson’s plan reduced those to just two, for the highest possible offense against another human (murder) and against the state (treason). Everything else got a lesser penalty.

He would later change his mind about hard labor in the public sector in favor of it within a prison, out of the public eye.  He couldn’t recall why they approved retaliation for some crimes, though he did trace it back to Anglo-Saxon times and further back to the “eye for an eye” principle of the Hebrews.

It would be almost 20 years later before the Virginia legislature adopted Jefferson’s recommendations on capital punishment.

Dumas Malone, in his Jefferson the Virginian (P.270) summarized the intent: “The main significance of Jefferson’s proposals lay in his attempt to relax the severity of punishments, and to make them at the same time more humane and rational. This was quite in the spirit of the enlightened liberalism of the age he so well embodied.”

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