Happy Birthday to Jefferson, 2

|The Volokh Conspiracy |

I couldn't resist chiming in to co-blogger Randy Barnett's birthday wishes for Thomas Jefferson (see "Happy Birthday: How Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence"). I know we're all supposed to despise Jefferson these days as a slave-owning, hypocritical schemer, and public sentiment does seem to be moving toward the opposite, Hamiltonian pole in the great scheme of things. But I remain an unregenerate Jeffersonophile—and what would the world be coming to if we couldn't have two Happy Birthday Jefferson postings at the Volokh Conspiracy, of all places?

As Randy notes, Jefferson cribbed (and freely admitted to having cribbed) much of the material in the Declaration from earlier sources, including George Mason's draft of what would become the Virginia Declaration of Rights:

[A]ll men are born equally free and independent, and have certain inherent natural rights, of which they cannot, by any compact, deprive or divest their posterity; among which are, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.

Jefferson doesn't get nearly enough credit for eliminating the reference to "the means of acquiring and possessing property" (which Mason, in turn, had cribbed from John Locke) in what became "Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness." It was a monumental, history-altering decision; everyone (up to and including Abraham Lincoln) understood what it meant and was intended to mean: that the (slave-owner's) right to acquire and possess property—and slaves, of course, were property—was not of equal rank when compared with the slave's right to life and to liberty. I have long maintained, and still do, that "few people in human history did more, in the sum total of their lifetimes, to dismantle the institution of slavery than Jefferson. The principle of equality laid down in the Declaration of Independence—what Gordon Wood has called "the most powerful proposition in American history, bar none"—set in motion a chain of events that would lead, in as straight a line as history ever gives us, to emancipation." So happy birthday, indeed.

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