“The Greatest Political Philosophers of their day”

It should be noted that whatever authority the Declaration of Independence has acquired in the world, has not been without criticism, either at the time of its first appearance or in subsequent years. It has been attacked again and again, either in anger, or in contempt, by friends as well as by enemies of the American Revolution, by liberals in politics as well as by conservatives. It has been censured for its substance, it has been censured for its form, for its misstatements of fact, for its fallacies in reasoning, for its audacious novelties and paradoxes, for its total lack 0f all novelty, for its repetition of old and threadbare statements, even for its downright plagiarisms. Additionally, it is criticised for its grandiose style.

The truth is that Thomas Jefferson, along with the other Founding Fathers, adhered to rather conventional 18th century political ideas, derived mainly from the works of Locke and Montesquieu. The Declaration of Independence, which is often cited in the media as a marvel of originality, is nothing but a trite paraphrase of the leading ideas in John Locke’s 1693 Concerning the True Original Extent and End of Civil Government. John Adams thought the DOI was hackneyed, and James Madison apologized for its plagiarism by saying that “The object was to assert, not to discover truths.” One signer of the Declaration, Richard Henry Lee, sneered at it as a thing “copied from Locke’s Treatise on Government.” Here is a comparison:

John Locke, Concerning Civil Government, 1693, second essay, Ch. 19:

Secondly: I answer, such revolutions happen not upon every little mismanagement in public affairs. Great mistakes in the ruling part, many wrong and inconvenient laws, and all the slips of human frailty will be borne by the people without mutiny or murmur. But if a long train of abuses, prevarications, and artifices, all tending the same way, make the design visible to the people, and they cannot but feel what they lie under, and see whither they are going, it is not to be wondered that they should then rouse themselves, and endeavor to put the rule into such hands which may secure to them the end for which government was at first erected…

Thomas Jefferson, Declaration of Independence, 1776:

Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shown, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when 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.

John Adams wrote about the Declaration that :

” There is not an idea in it but what had been hackneyed in Congress for two years before. The substance of it is contained in the declaration of rights and the violation of those rights, in the Journals of Congress, in 1774. Indeed, the essence of it is contained in a pamphlet, voted and printed by the town of Boston, before the first Congress met, composed by James Otis, as I suppose, in one of his lucid intervals, and pruned and polished by Samuel Adams.”

Even Jefferson himself was aware of these criticisms and commented that the Declaration of Independence “contained no new ideas, that it is a commonplace compilation, its sentences hackneyed in Congress for two years before, and its essence contained in Otis’s pamphlet,” Jefferson quietly remarked that perhaps these statements might “all be true: of that I am not to be the judge. . . . Whether I had gathered my ideas from reading 0r reflection, I do not know. I know only that I turned to neither book nor pamphlet while writing it. I did not consider it as any part of my charge to invent new ideas altogether and to offer no sentiment which had ever been expressed before.”

It appears that even the founders are in disagreement that they could be considered “The Greatest Political Philosphers of their day”.

On the other hand, Jeremy Bentham was a child prodigy who became a leading theorist in Anglo-American philosophy of law.

See http://www.oldandsold.com/articles22/independence-day-31.shtml
http://oll.libertyfund.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=1130&Itemid=264

Advertisements

Posted 28/02/2011 by lacithedog in Philosophy, Political Philosophy

%d bloggers like this: