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Category Archives: Natural rights

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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Who GETS CREDIT for that new thing?

…  who commenced the Revolution? is as difficult as that of the first inventors of a thousand good things.  For example, who first discovered the principle of gravity ?  Not Newton ;  for Galileo, who died the year that Newton was born, had measured its force in the descent of gravid [pregnant, or burdened, heavy] bodies.  Who invented the Lavoiserian chemistry ?  The English say Dr. Black, by the preparatory discovery of latent heat.  Who invented the steamboat ?  Was it Gerbert, the Marquis of Worcester, Newcomen, Savary, Papin, Fitch, Fulton ?  The fact is, that one new idea leads to another, that to a third, and so on through a course of time until some one, with whom no one of these ideas was original, combines all together, and produces what is justly called a new invention.
To Benjamin Waterhouse, March 13, 1818  (2nd letter)

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Real leaders know that many deserve the credit for any new thing.
Benjamin Waterhouse posed the question that opens this excerpt. Jefferson answered by example. The conclusion was no single person but rather by a combination of efforts. The last sentence is key. Eventually, someone would combine the work of others to produce something new. That final person might not have been a contributor to the result but an aggregator of others’ ideas.

Thus, Jefferson could not credit the revolution’s beginning to one person. It belonged to many. He credited others with the inspiration that he later wove into the Declaration of Independence.

Often, the final result is credited to the final person involved (Newton for gravity, Fulton for the steam engine, Jefferson for the Declaration), but it is the work of others that enables that single, final person to bring it all together.

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Did Jefferson oppose Islam?

This post features a departure from our usual form and begins with a reader’s question:
“There has been some talk lately about comments made by Mr. Jefferson concerning the muslems and their radical religious views.  It has been mentioned on TV by Fox News commentators, as well as Glenn Beck and others.  It is being discussed that Mr. Jefferson took a bold and strong position about their dangerous position to the world and the united states.  Supposedly, the muslems made threats to other countries.  France was supposedly one of them. Mr. Jefferson warned the world leaders to be cautious about the radical muslems.  Is that true?  Please comment.”

Patrick Lee’s Comment
This will be a challenge to compress into a short reply!
1. Jefferson authored a bill, adopted in the 1780s, to dis-establish the official state-supported church in Virginia. Decades later, he wrote in his Autobiography, “The bill for establishing religious freedom…  was meant to be universal … within the mantle of it’s protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan [Muslim], the Hindoo, and infidel of every denomination.”
2. Jefferson would have warned about the dangers posed by ANY radical person, group, denomination, authority, political party or government that wanted to impose its views, religious or otherwise, on others by force.
3. From the time Jefferson was Ambassador to France in the mid-1780s through the rest of his political career, he contended with the “Barbary pirates,” the North African states of Tripoli, Tunis, Morocco and Algiers. Those states demanded annual tribute (bribes) from nations shipping in the Mediterranean, or they would capture their ships and hold their crew and cargo for ransom. Those North African states happened to be Muslim. He strongly opposed their actions, not their religion.
4. Jefferson biographer Dumas Malone cited a March 28, 1786 letter from John Adams and Jefferson to John Jay. (Diplomatic Correspondence of the United States, 1783-1789, Vol. 1, p. 604-5. I could not find the text.) They wrote that the Tripoli minister “…calmly asserted that it was the duty of his countrymen to make war on “sinners”.” (Malone, Jefferson and the Rights of Man, p. 52) Read into that what you will.
5. You can make a strong case that Jefferson would oppose radical expressions of anything that would deny people their creator-endowed natural rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

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3 Comments Posted in Commerce, Foreign Policy, Natural rights, Religion Tagged , , , , |

WHAT is he writing about? (The S-word)

The subject of your letter of April 20, is one on which I do not permit myself to express an opinion, but when time, place, and occasion may give it some favorable effect. A good cause is often injured more by ill-timed efforts of its friends than by the arguments of its enemies. Persuasion, perseverance, and patience are the best advocates on questions depending on the will of others.
The revolution in public opinion which this cause requires, is not to be expected in a day, or perhaps in an age; but time, which outlives all things, will outlive this evil also. My sentiments have been forty years before the public. Had I repeated them forty times, they would only have become the more stale and threadbare. Although I shall not live to see them consummated, they will not die with me; but living or dying, they will ever be in my most fervent prayer  …
To James Heaton, Monticello, May 20, 1826

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Realistic leaders understand that big change comes very slowly.
The subject is slavery. (There’s a new book, a grossly inaccurate one, I think, on Jefferson, the evil slaveholder.) Consider this letter, written by the frail, ailing Jefferson just six weeks before his death. These are his last words on this grievous issue.

1. He expressed an opinion only when it could have “some favorable effect.” Otherwise, he kept his thoughts to himself.
2. By poor timing, friends could injure a good cause more than its enemies.
3. When change depends on the will of others, rely on “persuasion, perseverance and patience.”
4. Revolutionary change in thinking comes not in a day and maybe not in a lifetime.
5. Time will outlive slavery, which he called evil. The practice would end … sometime.
6. Since the late 1760s, his views on slavery were well-known. To harp on them year after year would have made his voice irrelevant.
7. He wouldn’t live to see this evil ended, but he wouldn’t give up. Slavery’s end would be his “most fervent prayer,” even in death.
Do these principles apply today where a “revolution in public opinion” is required?

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2 Comments Posted in Human nature, Natural rights, Slavery Tagged , , , , |

“Who’s your Daddy?” vs. “Who are YOU?”

… I agree with you that there is a natural aristocracy among men. The grounds of this are virtue and talents … There is also an artificial aristocracy founded on wealth and birth, without either virtue or talents; for with these it would belong to the first class. The natural aristocracy I consider as the most precious gift of nature for the instruction, the trusts, and government of society … May we not even say that that form of government is the best which provides the most effectually for a pure selection of these natural aristoi [aristocrats] into the offices of government? The artificial aristocracy is a mischievous ingredient in government, and provision should be made to prevent its ascendancy …
To John Adams, Oct. 28, 1813

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
True leaders achieve their status by natural gifts, not artificial ones.
Some will rise to the top of every society. How do they get there?

In all other societies, the aristocrats achieved their status by heredity (Who’s your Daddy?) or wealth (I have more than you.) Jefferson called that an “artificial aristocracy,” one created by the wealthy and well-born for the maintenance of their own privileged position.
A true aristocracy, one based on natural law, promoted individuals on the twin foundations of virtue (What kind of person are you?) and talent (What skills do you possess that will benefit society?).
Jefferson wanted to prevent the artificial ones, “a mischievous ingredient,” from having any significant role in government. He welcomed natural aristocrats into government, believing they were prepared by nature for that role.
The best government was one that nurtured the selection, recognition and ascendency of people with talent and integrity.

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1 Comment Posted in Leadership, Natural rights, Politics

Can men under God remain oppressors forever?

 …There must doubtless be an unhappy influence on the manners of our people produced by the existence of slavery among us…
And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with His wrath? Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that his justice cannot sleep forever … The Almighty has no attribute which can take side with us [whites enslaving blacks] in such a contest …
I think a change already perceptible, since the origin of the present revolution. The spirit of the master is abating, that of the slave rising from the dust, his condition mollifying [softening], the way I hope preparing, under the auspices of heaven, for a total emancipation, and that this is disposed, in the order of events to be with the consent of the masters, rather than by their extirpation [extermination].

Notes on Virginia, Query XVIII, 1782, by Thomas Jefferson

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Moral leaders understand that legal oppression must come to an end … eventually.
A French diplomat in Philadelphia posed 23 questions to Jefferson about Virginia. His answers to those questions became Notes on the State of Virginia, the only book he completed. The 18th query was, “The particular customs and manners that may happen to be received in that State?” Jefferson devoted his response to the practice and result of slavery.
This chapter contains several oft-quoted observations about the degradation that slavery imposed on both blacks and whites. Today’s post deals with just one of those observations: America cannot consider its liberties to be secure when it violates the God-given natural rights of some of its people. And there is no argument that oppressors could muster that would put “The Almighty” on their side. Indeed, they should fear God’s judgment. (This portion, “And can the liberties of a nation …?,” is often taken out of context today and used to justify a writer’s particular cause, but Jefferson clearly applied it here to slavery only.)
Since America’s war for independence, Jefferson sensed a slight improvement in attitudes toward slavery, by both master and slave. He hoped that change would continue, by heaven’s will, to complete freedom for all. He hoped it would come about peacefully, and not through slave uprisings and the deaths of their masters.
Often the optimist, Jefferson would not live to see this emancipation. Nor would it come at all peacefully.

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Leave a comment Posted in Morality, Natural rights, Slavery

“Stop the presses!” (Or Twitter or YouTube?)

   DEAR SIR, — Your letter of Aug. 15 …  on the difficulties of revolutions, from despotism to freedom, I very much concur. The generation which commences a revolution can rarely compleat it. Habituated from their infancy to passive submission of body and mind to their kings and priests, they are not qualified, when called on, to think and provide for themselves and their inexperience …
The light which has been shed on mankind by the art of printing has eminently changed the condition of the world … And, while printing is preserved, it can no more recede than the sun return on his course. A first attempt to recover the right of self-government may fail; so may a 2d. a 3d. etc., but as a younger, and more instructed race comes on, the sentiment becomes more and more intuitive, and a 4th. a 5th. or some subsequent one of the ever renewed attempts will ultimately succeed … To attain all this however rivers of blood must yet flow, and years of desolation pass over. Yet the object is worth rivers of blood, and years of desolation for what inheritance so valuable can man leave to his posterity?

To John Adams, September 4, 1823

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
“Watchman! what of the night? Is darkness that may be felt to prevail over the whole world? Or can you perceive the rays of a returning dawn?”
Those words mark the beginning of John Adams’ August 15 letter which prompted this reply. Further on, Adams opines that people stuck in the darkness of tyrannical rule cannot make an overnight change to freedom.
Jefferson agreed but observed that the printing press would continue to change “the condition of the world.”  Printed words about revolution, freedom and the rights of man couldn’t be withdrawn anymore than the sun could go backwards. It would cost oppressed people “rivers of blood” and “years of desolation” to change their government, but that change was inevitable and well worth the cost.
Bring Jefferson’s thought forward to last year’s “Arab spring” and continuing foment in the Middle East. Where Jefferson wrote “printing,” substitute “Twitter” or “YouTube.” As long as truth can be brought forward, through whatever media, oppressed people can have hope for a better future … eventually.

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1 Comment Posted in Human nature, Independence, Natural rights

How do the poor people live?

… I fell in with a poor woman walking at the same rate with myself and going the same course. Wishing to know the condition of the labouring poor I entered into conversation with her … and thence proceeded to enquiries into her vocation, condition and circumstance. She told me she was a day labourer, at 8. sous or 4 d. sterling the day; that she had two children to maintain, and to pay a rent of 30 livres for her house (which would consume the hire of 75 days), that often she could get no emploiment, and of course was without bread. As we had walked together near a mile and she had so far served me as a guide, I gave her, on parting 24 sous. She burst into tears of a gratitude which I could perceive was unfeigned, because she was unable to utter a word. She had probably never before received so great an aid. This little attendrissement [tenderness], with the solitude of my walk led me into a train of reflections on that unequal division of property which occasions the numberless instances of wretchedness which I had observed in this country and is to be observed all over Europe. The property of this country is absolutely concentered in a very few hands …
Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, October 28, 1785

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Wise leaders seek to understand people and their situations.
Jefferson was on a long walk to a neighboring village in France when he encountered this woman. He was always interested in how people lived, so he questioned her as they walked on together. She was all-too-representative of the European poor who had nothing, while a very few controlled all the land.

When this single mother could find work, she made 8 sous per day. I don’t know how much money that was in 1785, but for a half hour of her time and information, Jefferson gave her three day’s wages.
Further on in this letter he decried property that lay fallow for the hunting pleasure of the very rich, while people went hungry. That land could be farmed to provide food for people like this woman and her children. He also speculated to Madison about laws that might tax property progressively, to provide opportunity for the hopelessly poor to escape their fate.
He saw such concentration of wealth and squandering of the land’s potential while millions went hungry a violation of natural law.

Jefferson was a 1%-er who cared strongly about the 99%.
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Leave a comment Posted in Agriculture, Morality, Natural rights

Can I get an “Amen!,” somebody?

The earth belongs always to the living generation. They may manage it, and what proceeds from it, as they please, during their usufruct.
[Webster’s Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary: “usufruct – 1. the legal right of using and enjoying the fruits or profits of something belonging to another”].

To James Madison, 1789, 2340

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
This natural right was a common theme for Jefferson. Each generation had the right to manage its resources for its own use and enjoyment. Yet, those resources didn’t belong to them alone, but to each generation, in turn. Inherent in that right was that one generation did not have the right to bind the next one. It was that next generation’s right to make choices for their use and enjoyment.
This gave rise to his belief that laws and even Constitutions should be amended or rewritten from generation to generation, as circumstances and needs dictated. He considered a generation to be about two decades, and that was an appropriate interval for reevaluation. He did not propose a “revolution” every 20 years, as some claim.
He was also adamant that no generation had the right to incur debt that the next generation had to pay. (Can I get an “Amen!,” somebody?)

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3 Comments Posted in Constitutional issues, Natural rights

Thomas Jefferson on capital punishment

… capital punishments, which exterminate instead of reforming … should be the last melancholy resource against those whose existence is become inconsistent with the safety of their fellow citizens … cruel and sanguinary [bloodthirsty] laws defeat their own purpose …no crime shall be henceforth punished by deprivation of life or limb except …
If a man do levy war against the Commonwealth or be adherent to the enemies of the commonwealth giving to them aid or comfort … the person so convicted shall suffer death by hanging, and shall forfeit his lands and goods to the Commonwealth.

If any person commit Petty treason, or a husband murder his wife, a parent his child, or a child his parent, he shall suffer death by hanging, and his body be delivered to Anatomists to be dissected.
Whosoever committeth murder by poisoning shall suffer death by poison.
Whosoever committeth murder by way of duel, shall suffer death by hanging; and if he were the challenger, his body, after death, shall be gibbeted [displayed publicly] …Whosoever shall commit murder in any other way shall suffer death by hanging.… Whenever sentence of death shall have been pronounced against any person for treason or murder, execution shall be done on the next day …
You can read the full Bill here.
A Bill for Proportioning Crimes and Punishments, 1779

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Jefferson spent the Revolutionary War years helping revise Virginia’s colonial statutes into ones more suited for a modern, free and independent state. These excerpts come from his “A Bill for Proportioning Crimes and Punishments.”
Though I can’t find the documentation now, I have read that Virginia had many capital offenses, perhaps two dozen for which a man could be put to death. Jefferson’s proposal restricted that harshest punishment for just two crimes, treason and murder.
The remainder of the bill outlined lesser offenses and their penalties. As the title of the bill described, the purpose was to make the punishment fit the crime.
Traitors would forfeit all their estate to the government. A murderer’s estate was to divided, half the the victim’s family, half to his heirs.
Jefferson’s bill was considered too lenient and not adopted. Nearly 20 years later, the Virginia legislature did restrict capital punishment to these two offenses.

Learn more about justice & Thomas Jefferson.
(Or almost anything else & Thomas Jefferson!)

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Leave a comment Posted in Morality, Natural rights, Protecting ourselves