Thomas Jefferson
Thomas Jefferson; drawing by David Levine

Who would think it possible to redirect historical scholarship by explaining what Thomas Jefferson said in the Declaration of Independence? A host of able biographers have pursued Jefferson day-by-day and have even made lurid guesses at his nights. His papers are published with the most painstaking textual analysis ever accorded an American historical figure. Every scrap relating to the Declaration of Independence has been savored like holy writ, and the document itself is probably better known than any other in our history. But Garry Wills has now given us a reading of it that may radically change our perception both of the Declaration and of its author.

The title of the book is a little misleading. In Wills’s view America—the nation, the national government—was invented after the Declaration, and the Declaration was given a key (and undeserved) role in the process only in the nineteenth century. But Wills is not primarily interested in this invention. The real focus of his book, as indicated in the subtitle, is what Jefferson wrote in the last days of June and perhaps the first days of July, 1776. The Declaration of Independence as adopted by Congress was considerably altered in a number of places from Jefferson’s original draft, much to Jefferson’s chagrin. Previous historians and biographers have attributed his distress at the changes to an excessive pride of authorship, for nearly everyone agrees that the deletions and revisions strengthened the wording—a rare example of legislative tinkering that worked to advantage. Wills shows that the alterations actually blunted Jefferson’s meaning and were proper cause for his distress. Addressing himself to the Declaration as Jefferson wrote it, Wills finds in the deletions a clue to what Jefferson was trying to say not only in the omitted passages but also in what was left.

The results are little short of astonishing. Wills points out that few scholars have given close attention to Jefferson’s meaning since Carl Becker’s little book on the Declaration appeared in 1922. But he is too generous. Every historian of the Revolution has had to study the Declaration, and many have challenged Becker’s interpretation of the intellectual climate that produced it. But no one has offered so drastic a revision or so close or convincing an analysis of the document itself as Wills has now presented.

The heart of the new interpretation lies in a demonstration that Jefferson’s view of human society and government was not derived, as has commonly been supposed, from John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government. Locke’s psychology, as set forth in the Essay Concerning Human Understanding, may well have influenced Jefferson and his contemporaries, but Locke’s political and social ideas, Wills argues, are not what Jefferson embedded in the Declaration. The source of Jefferson’s thought and the key to what he was trying to say are to be found in the writings of eighteenth-century Scotsmen.

The writers of the Scottish Enlightenment—Kames, Hume, Hutcheson, Ferguson, Reid, Dugald Stewart, Adam Smith—had already begun to win world renown by the time Jefferson was learning his letters in Virginia from a Scottish schoolmaster. Later at William and Mary a Scottish philosopher, William Small, gave Jefferson, as the latter put it in his Autobiography, “my first views of the expansion of science, and of the system of things in which we are placed.” That system of things, Wills argues, was delineated most significantly for Jefferson in Scottish authors and particularly in the political and moral philosophy of Francis Hutcheson, which diverged from that of John Locke in important ways. By reading the Declaration in the light of Hutcheson’s teachings, Wills finds new meaning in crucial passages. What previously seemed eloquent but vague becomes precise, and what previously seemed precise becomes strangely sentimental.

Since Wills’s argument is certain to invite controversy, we may as well admit at the outset that he has overstated his case. He tells us that “there is no indication Jefferson read the [i.e., Locke’s] Second Treatise carefully or with profit, Indeed, there is no direct proof he ever read it at all….” He declares that there is “no demonstrable verbal echo of the Treatise in all of Jefferson’s vast body of writings,” and that “those who think Jefferson had to derive his natural right of revolution from Locke have no direct textual parallels to draw on. But the parallels within the Scottish school are everywhere.” As proof he offers three passages from Hutcheson together with three passages from the Declaration in which the thought is similar. Since this bit of evidence figures fairly prominently in his demonstration, it is only fair to reproduce the passages. Here are the three passages from Hutcheson with their counterparts in the Declaration:

Hutcheson. But as the end of all civil power is acknowledged by all to be the safety and happiness of the whole body, any power not naturally conducive to this end is unjust; which the people, who rashly granted it under an error, may justly abolish again when they find it necessary to their safety to do so (4:302).

Declaration. Whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying it’s foundation on such principles, and organising it’s powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.

Hutcheson. Nor is it justifiable in a people to have recourse for any lighter causes to violence and civil wars against their rulers, while the public interests are tolerably secured and consulted. But when it is evident that the public liberty and safety is not tolerably secured, and that more mischiefs, and these of a more lasting kind, are like to arise from the continuance of any plan of civil power than are to be feared from the violent efforts for an alteration of it, then it becomes lawful, nay honorable, to make such efforts and change the plan of government (4: 303).

Declaration. 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.

Hutcheson. A good subject ought to bear patiently many injuries done only to himself, rather than take arms against a prince in the main good and useful to the state, provided the danger extends only to himself. But when the common rights of the community are trampled upon, and what at first is attempted against one is made to be made [sic] a precedent against all the rest, then as the governor is plainly perfidious [abandoning the key contract-virtue of fidelity] to his trust, he has forfeited all the power committed to him (ibid.).

Declaration. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, begun at a distinguished period and 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….

Wills comments:


Language and doctrine accord with each other in Jefferson; and both mesh with Hutcheson’s teaching and phrasing. I do not argue for direct borrowing, since the Hutchesonian language was shared so widely by Scottish thinkers. I do conclude that Jefferson drew his ideas and words from these men, who stood at a conscious and deliberate distance from Locke’s political principles.

I am disposed to agree with Wills that there is a marked similarity in thought if not in language between the passages in question. But in these particular passages the distance from Locke’s political principles is not noticeable, indeed it is nonexistent. And, as it happens, in these very passages there are phrases directly borrowed, whether consciously or not, from Locke’s Second Treatise. Where Jefferson says that “mankind are more disposed to suffer while evils are sufferable,” Locke says that the people “are more disposed to suffer than right themselves by resistance” (Second Treatise, chapter 19, paragaraph 230). And where Jefferson says, “But when a long train of abuses and usurpations…evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism,” Locke says, “But if a long train of abuses, prevarications and artifices, all tending the same way, make the design visible to the people…” (ibid. Chapter 19, paragraph 225). The resemblance can scarcely be coincidence, and it is a closer textual parallel than any that Wills has found with a Scottish philosopher.

Jefferson’s debt to Locke, then, cannot be canceled. But I cite it only because it is certain to be charged against Wills as a reason for discounting the claims he makes for Hutcheson. Jefferson was an eclectic in philosophy as in science, and he collected what suited him. The fact that he borrowed phrases from Locke and the fact that the Declaration can be read as an echo of the Second Treatise do not mean that he swallowed Locke whole or that Wills is wrong in seeing Hutcheson as a major source of his thinking in 1776. What makes Wills’s case convincing is not the presence or absence of textual parallels but the fact that he is able to make sense out of many statements of Jefferson, in the Declaration and outside it, that have not made much sense hitherto.

A good example is “the pursuit of happiness,” a phrase that has pleased and puzzled many previous interpreters. It has always been something of an enigma that Jefferson substituted these words for the Lockean “property,” the natural right commonly associated with life and liberty. Wills leads us to the subject through a long demonstration of the eighteenth-century confidence in the possibility of measuring practically anything. He shows us Jefferson exhibiting that confidence in a variety of applications to social problems where even the most ardent modern quantifier would hesitate to intrude his numbers. He then explains how Hutcheson and other Scotsmen not only tried to measure happiness itself by balancing amounts of pleasure against amounts of pain, but insisted that this kind of measurement was the spring of human action. By the time the demonstration is complete we have a wholly new context for Jefferson’s assertion that the pursuit of happiness is an unalienable right. It becomes, indeed, a scientific proposition, a self-evident truth, an observed fact: men will pursue happiness, they cannot be stopped from pursuing it, they cannot give up the pursuit even if they wish to.


A primary divergence between the Scottish philosophers and Locke, as explicated by Wills, lies in Hutcheson’s emphasis on the innate “moral sense” of men, a sense that found expression in society rather than solitude. Hutcheson was not entranced with Locke’s state of nature in which men somehow existed without social bonds. The natural state of man for Hutcheson was social. Men were bound to one another by ties of affection and natural benevolence, not simply by contract. And they created governments to maximize the benefits of living together. The moral sense, like the Quaker’s inner light, was present in all; and it was the business of governments to cultivate it and from their own measurements of happiness to generate the greatest happiness of the greatest number.

The difference from Locke does not sound great when it comes to finding reasons for overthrowing governments that fail in their function. But when Jefferson borrowed phrases from Locke, he could well have endowed them with Hutchesonian meaning. How the two could blend is evident in Wills’s gloss on “created equal.” Locke had described the state of nature as a state of perfect equality, no man having more than another, because no man possessed more than his own person. Hutcheson also believed that men were created equal, but Hutcheson’s equality was not an imagined condition of primeval antiquity. It was a present social fact and one that could be observed in the universal operation of the moral sense. Thus when Jefferson spoke of men being created equal, his words may have called up Locke’s Second Treatise to some, but to others and to himself (or so Wills would argue) he meant that all men, however different in talents or wealth or social position, had the same moral sense and the same social rights and duties that went with it. He meant the words, Wills insists, much more literally than subsequent Americans have recognized.

This assertion immediately raises the question of Jefferson’s well-known remarks about the natural inferiority of blacks. Wills confronts the question directly, and it offers him opportunity for some fresh observations on Jefferson’s view of black-white relationships. The most celebrated passage in which Jefferson expressed his view is the one in the Notes on Virginia where he argues at length that blacks have inferior mental and physical capacities but grants them equality in matters of the “heart,” that is, in possession of the moral sense. “It is easy,” Wills observes, “for a modern reader to think Jefferson has thrown an unimportant sop to the blacks with his praise for the ‘heart.’ ” But in the light of Hutcheson’s philosophy, Jefferson was insisting on equality of the races in what mattered most. Everyone recognized that men of whatever race differed widely in mental and physical qualities, but such differences, Wills argues, were minor “by comparison with the faculty that gives man his unique dignity, that grounds his rights, that makes him self-governing.”

It did not follow, as Wills points out, that Jefferson was eager to free American slaves. Slavery had poisoned the relationship between the races, had excluded blacks from the rights that their manhood entitled them to, had excluded them and alienated them from the community of feeling that bound white society together. The only way to abolish slavery without race war, Jefferson believed, was to send slaves out of the country as fast as they were freed, to become a separate, independent community elsewhere. Until that was done (and Jefferson did not exert himself to have it done) the very denial of rights to slaves made it necessary to protect the white community against those who had every reason to promote their own happiness by attacking it. And Jefferson’s ultimate loyalty was to that white community.

This explanation does not excuse Jefferson, but it exposes with new clarity the conflict between his hatred of slavery and his devotion to a society that failed to abolish it. That devotion leads back to the reasons for Jefferson’s distress at the changes made in his draft of the Declaration. Congress made its most extensive deletions toward the end of the document, the first in a clause that indicted the king for carrying on the slave trade and for vetoing laws that would have prohibited it, the second in a lengthy denunciation of the British people.

Wills argues that the first of these omissions probably caused Jefferson little distress, because the principal words removed were a contradictory and gratuitous preamble to a complaint that actually objected to the king’s attempt (through the governor of Virginia) to free slaves: “he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them, by murdering the people on whom he also obtruded them: thus paying off former crimes committed against the Liberties of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another.” The reference was to Governor Dunmore’s proclamation offering freedom to Virginia slaves who would desert their masters to join his forces in attempting to put down the Revolution. Jefferson had tried to combine a condemnation of slavery and the slave trade with a condemnation of slave insurrections. The contradiction, embodying the contradiction in Jefferson’s own life and loyalties, was too palpable.

When Congress deleted the clause that contained it, they preserved the substance of the complaint by inserting the words, “He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us.” The new clause was, perhaps intentionally, ambiguous. It could be read not only as a reference to Dunmore’s proclamation but also as a condemnation of the efforts of royal governors to achieve risings of loyalists against the Revolution (another charge of Jefferson’s that Congress deleted). Even its ambiguity scarcely saved it from absurdity. For the king to have encouraged the loyalty of loyalists did not sound like much of a crime. And to have encouraged the rebellion of slaves against their masters was not likely to damage the king’s reputation before the candid world to which Americans were appealing in justification of their own rebellion.

The fact that Jefferson should have wanted to include such an indictment in the first place and that Congress should have included it at all suggests the strength of his and their attachment to the community of white Americans that they stood ready to defend against kings, loyalists, and slaves alike. That attachment, perhaps stronger in Jefferson than in Congress, accounts for Jefferson’s real distress over the other extensive deletion. The omission of his strictures on the British people, as Wills sees it, deflected the thrust of the Declaration away from what Jefferson would have considered its purpose. Although the bulk of the document recites acts of tyranny by the king, its purpose was to dissolve the bands that connected Americans with Englishmen. In the conventional interpretation of the Declaration, the indictment of the king is explained by virtue of the fact that he was the sole remaining English authority that Americans were willing to acknowledge in 1776. Hence to declare independence was to declare independence of him.

What Wills argues convincingly is that Jefferson, in accordance with the principle of government by consent, held the British people responsible for the actions of both king and Parliament. Independence must therefore mean separation from the British people, with whom Americans had hitherto been joined. The deleted passage indicted them for electing and re-electing a Parliament that undertook the measures which alienated the Americans. “These facts,” wrote Jefferson, “have given the last stab to agonizing affection, and manly spirit bids us to renounce for ever these unfeeling brethren. We must endeavor to forget our former love for them…. We might have been a free and a great people together; but a communication of grandeur and of freedom it seems is below their dignity. Be it so, since they will have it. The road to happiness and to glory is open to us too. We will tread it apart from them….”

Today the words seem petulant, even a bit maudlin, and well struck from a document of such rhetorical power as the Declaration elsewhere exhibits. But Wills sees in them once again the Scottish philosophy of moral sentiment, with the accent on sentiment. Jefferson was not, he argues again, a Lockean individualist, who thought that society rested on an imaginary contract. People were bound together by sentiment, by affection, by benevolence, by the heart more than by the head (and Wills gives a new interpretation too of Jefferson’s famous Dialogue between the Heart and the Head). The wrenching separation effected by the Declaration was not from a fatuous king but from a people with whom Americans had been bound by ties that were sentimental as well as political.

This interpretation offers a fresh perspective both on Jefferson and on the Congress. And like most new insights in history it raises as many questions as it answers. Since Wills gives us so much to think about in this brilliant book, it is perhaps churlish to suggest that he might have given us more. But one cannot help wishing that he had pursued somewhat further than he did the question of what bands were broken and what, if any, were left among Americans by the Declaration. Wills’s answers to these questions are a little too simple. He recognizes the ties of sentiment with England, yet he all but ignores the ties among Americans themselves.

Part of the difficulty lies in a misunderstanding of the relations among the thirteen colonies before the Revolution. Wills seems to suppose that the colonists lived in a kind of splendid isolation from one another and carried on trade exclusively with England. Thus he tells us:

We may have difficulty reconstructing a seaboard where the ties between “Charles Town” and Williamsburg, or between Boston and New York, ran all the way over to London and back—but so it was. England had arranged it thus, for her own advantage. All trade was with and through the Empire’s hub, materials coming in, manufactures going out; the spokes meant to deal with each other only through mediation of the hub.

One good reason why it is difficult to conceive of such a situation is that it never existed. There were virtually no restrictions on direct trade between colonies within the empire, and the volume of such trade through every colonial port far exceeded that of trade with England.

Since Wills starts from so gross a misconception, it is not surprising that he should treat the Continental Congress as a collection of utter strangers, the members from each colony more comfortable with their ties to England than with “an unmanageable collection of foreigners.” In discussing the first Congress of 1774 he stresses its attention to petitioning the mother country and discounts the unanimous adoption of the Association for nonimportation, nonexportation, and nonconsumption of British goods. This was an agreement with teeth in it. Its enforcement throughout the colonies by committees created under a congressional directive could scarcely have been successful without a greater degree of national feeling than Wills will allow.

Because he is eager to minimize the degree of national sentiment that found expression in the Congress, because he wishes to correct the mistaken supposition that the Declaration became at once a symbol of national unity, Wills does not examine what Jefferson’s own words reveal about the way Americans thought of themselves in 1776. Wills insists that the Declaration did not invent America, that it created “not one country, but thirteen separate ones,” that “The Declaration speaks for the thirteen united states. These new states pledge to each other their honor, that honor accruing to sovereignties as they take their ‘free and equal station’ with other nations.” This is to ignore the ambiguities of the document, ambiguities that look back to an earlier particularism and forward to a national government.

The Declaration is full of these ambiguities. In the preamble it speaks of one people separating from another. But when it comes to making the separation, it declares “that these United colonies are and of right ought to be free and independant states.” That would seem to settle the matter: not state but states. But then Jefferson, in words unaltered by Congress, defines a free and independent state by saying “that as free and independant states, they have full power to levy war, conclude peace, contract alliances, establish commerce, and to do all other acts and things which independant states may of right do.” Which of these free and independent states, we may ask, undertook to do the acts and things that Jefferson specified as characteristics of a state? It was Congress that levied war through the Continental Army; it was Congress that concluded peace through its appointed commissioners; and it was Congress that contracted the alliance with France. Congress may not have established commerce, but in the Association it had disestablished it, and in a resolution of the preceding April 6, it had opened American ports to all the world except England. The United States may not have been a state in 1776, or even in 1783, but it was certainly making a noise like a state.

Precisely because Garry Wills has been able to see so much in the Declaration that no one else has seen, one wishes that he had given more attention to these ambiguities and to the way in which Jefferson viewed the bands, whether political or sentimental, that bound Americans of different colonies together. Surely the Declaration did not invent a new nation, but equally surely it revealed a nation already in the process of invention. The new perspective that Wills has given us will illuminate that process for years to come. Perhaps he may even offer us some further illumination himself.

This Issue

August 17, 1978