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Jefferson’s Commonplace Book

[clock] 14-MINUTE READ ISSUE:  Autumn 1927

The Commonplace Book of Thomas Jefferson, A Repertory of His Ideas on Government. With an Introduction and notes. By Gilbert Chinard. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, and Paris: Les Presses Universitaires de France. $4.00.

It is no tribute to American historical scholarship that a professor of French, trained in France, albeit now upon the staff of an American university, was the first to discover the significance of Jefferson’s “Commonplace Book,” in which the great Virginian copied excerpts or made abstracts from books he read. The manuscript reposes in the Library of Congress, but has heretofore been given scant attention. It is now published for the first time, and published in full, except for the articles which deal exclusively with technical legal questions, which are printed by title oniy. Students of Jefferson thus have available a document that gives them clues to some of his reading.

This is in itself a service for which historians are in debt to Professor Chinard; but this is not the whole story. For beside valuable footnotes, and an Appendix in which he gives undated extracts from Locke, Milton, Broughton, Shaftesbury and Voltaire, which Jefferson copied on separate sheets, the editor has written a most valuable Introduction. To this task he has brought not only his well-known acuteness of scholarship but an intimate previous acquaintance with Jefferson’s ideas as well.

We are told that the manuscript itself, which has been rebound, “forms a volume of 158 leaves covered on both sides with small, compact handwriting, not less than 35 or 36 lines to the page, but perfectly legible and in very, good condition,” With it are bound thirty leaves “consisting solely of elementary definitions of legal terms” and “written apparently by someone else.” These are not reproduced.

The “Commonplace Book” “does not represent Jefferson’s complete range of reading, and it will be noticed that purely literary and philosophical matters receive little attention in it. The extracts he made from Greek, Latin, English and French poets and from ancient and modern philosophers he set down in a smaller book kept in the Library of Congress, which will shortly be the subject of another publication. Not until then will it be possible to obtain a real insight into the mind of the most discussed statesman of the earlier period of the United States.”

Nevertheless, the editor seems to be justified in his statement that the “Commonplace Book” “may well be considered as the most important document available for the study of the historical and political background of Jefferson at the time he wrote the Declaration of Independence.” This depends, of course, upon the date—or rather dates— of compilation; and to this problem Professor Chinard devotes several pages which are a model of evidential reasoning. We can here give only his conclusion: That at least the first 879 entries of the total of 905 were “written when Jefferson was still a young man, before the conflict between the American colonies and the mother-conntry became quite acute, and certainly before the existence of the United States of America had become an accepted fact.”

While disclaiming any attempt at exploiting in an exhaustive way the mine of source material which he has unearthed, the editor has given excellent treatment of those revelations of the “Commonplace Book” which will probably be of most general interest. Historians, however, may well find other points of importance.

The first five hundred and fifty-six articles “would be of interest in studying Jefferson as a lawyer, and indirectly may throw some light on cases which were apt to come up before the courts of Virginia before the Revolution.” Articles 557 to 569 were taken from Lord Karnes: “Historical Law tracts,” first published in 1758. The exact influence of Karnes upon Jefferson is hard to determine: Kames was influenced by Locke, and Jefferson had probably read Locke when he read Kames. While the ideas of the three are similar, “the fact remains however,” says the learned editor, “that neither Locke nor, as far as I know, any other political thinker of the period, had yet so clearly defined that particular combination of individualism and respect for peace and good order which is so characteristic of the American conception of democracy.”

In article 576 Jefferson quoted from Sir John Dalrym-ple, who condemned entails and primogeniture. “Anticle 694 marks the beginning of a long series of entries on the history of the early populations of Europe,” which the editor thinks Jefferson did not copy out of mere antiquarian interest. “It seems from the nature of these abstracts that he had a definite purpose in mind, namely, to demonstrate to himself that the oldest f orms of government known to the primitive peoples of Europe rested on popular sovereignty.” “He found in Pelloutier”—and also in Stan-yan—”not only an historical confirmation of the doctrine of natural rights but also a demonstration of the right of colonies to govern themselves independently.”

Articles 749 to 757 throw light upon the origin of American political ideas as incorporated in the Constitution by Jefferson’s contemporaries. As the subject has been a controversial one, Professor Chinard terms these articles “the capital part” of the book. He seems to be correct in maintaining that they show Jefferson as no mere theorist and dreamer, but rather one seeking, “with the characteristic bent of a lawyer,” or, he might have added, of a practical statesman, historical precedents for the establishment of a federation of American states. Thus article 750 begins: “There are certain articles in the Constitution of the Hel-vitic body also worthy of attention in constituting an American Congress.” Incidentally, at the end of article 755 Jefferson quotes the sententious statement of Tacitus: Corruptissima republica plurimae leges, which is the converse of his own dogma that that country is governed best which is governed least.

While quoting Francis Stoughton Sullivan on the origin of feudal privileges of the nobility, and clergy, Jefferson disagreed with him, which leads the editor to remark: “This is quite characteristic of the attitude maintained by Jefferson through the ‘Commonplace Book.’ The authors he read and the texts he compiled can hardly be considered as ‘sources’ for his ideas and principles. In most cases he was seeking in them confirmation of ideas he already had, definite facts with which to strengthen and uphold theories he had already formulated and which, when all is said, were at that time, the common property of all political thinkers.”

Jefferson quotes more from Montesquieu than from any other single writer. This may seem surprising to those who have read in Jefferson’s letters condemnations of the author of L’esprit des lois. There has long raged a controversy over the influence of Montesquieu on Jefferson, and Professor Chinard, with the aid of the passages quoted and of a letter written by Jefferson in 1811, goes far toward clearing up the problem. It is interesting to note, in passing, that Jefferson did not take any extracts from that famous chapter on the separation of powers.

In later life Jefferson wrote as if the American system were an original invention. “We had no occasion,” he said in a letter of 1824, quoted at page 61, “we had no occasion to search into musty records, to hunt up royal parchments, or to investigate the laws and institutions of a semi-barbarous ancestry.” The “Commonplace Book,” as the editor points out, is convincing evidence to the contrary.

The most striking thing about this evidence, however, is that the interest of Jefferson was less in abstract philosophy than in historical precedents. To him, as to educated men generally in his period, the law of nature theory was a self-evident truth. But he appears less concerned with a hypothetical state of nature and man in the abstract than with historical data that seemed to show our Saxon ancestors had lived under customs based upon the natural rights of man. These customs had been overthrown by the Norman conquest, and only partially restored by the final struggle with the Stuarts. It remained for the Americans to make complete the restoration, not, to be sure, of Saxon ways of living, but of Saxon principles of natural liberty. This conception he outlined in explicit terms elsewhere; but Professor Chinard finds that in the “Commonplace Book” this “trend of thought . . . reappears with striking regularity, and is manifest in the choice of many extracts.” It gives the key to Jefferson’s ideas on such matters as popular sovereignty, the abolition of entails and of primogeniture, and religious freedom. It explains why Jefferson, popular notions to the contrary, was apparently so little influenced by French philosophers like Rousseau and Voltaire. The former is nowhere quoted in the “Commonplace Book,” and the latter merely as a source of facts and “as a sort of dictionary of inventions.” Even the statute for religious freedom seems, in the light of the extracts, to have been inspired by the desire to return to primitive Saxon principles rather than by Voltaire, or even by Locke, from whom Jefferson drew some of his arguments on the subject. Incidentally, this same viewpoint explains Jefferson’s desire to have Anglo-Saxon taught at the University of Virginia, so that the students might “imbibe with the language their free principles of government.”

We have reserved for final consideration article 832, which the editor declares to be “in some respects the most interesting and certainly the most puzzling abstract” in the whole book. Article 832 is not dated, but since number 834 appears to have been copied early in 1776, number 832 was probably written before the Declaration was drafted, probably not very long before. It is taken from a pamphlet by James Wilson, entitled “Considerations on the Nature and Extent of the Legislative Authority of the British Parliament,” and published in Philadelphia in 1774, but probably written in 1770. Two sections of the pamphlet contain expressions like the following: “All men are, by nature, equal and free. . . . All lawful government is founded on the consent of those, who are subject to it: Such consent was given with a view to ensure and to increase the happiness of the governed.” . . .

Curiously enough, Jefferson, in making his excerpt, quoted the paragraphs which immediately, precede, and the one which immediately follows, but omitted the two paragraphs which contain ideas and phrases so strikingly similar to some in the Declaration.

While finding no satisfactory explanation for this omission, Professor Chinard is inclined to hold that the quotation from Wilson tends to call into question Mr. Carl Becker’s statement, in his “Declaration of Independence,” that Jefferson, in drafting that document, quoted Locke directly. “It becomes quite possible that Jefferson remembered not only Locke, but also Wilson, who quoted Bur-lamaqui, who drew his inspiration from Locke.”

It will be noted that Professor Chinard does not deny that Jefferson may have had Locke in mind, but merely advances the hypothesis that he probably had Wilson in mind also. Hence, both the editor and Mr. Becker may be correct. Even so, however, the Chinard hypothesis alters the Becker hypothesis by adding to it. The former is all the more plausible in view of the fact that Locke linked together the preservation of men’s “lives, liberties and estates, which I call by the general name—property,” as the end which government ought to serve; while Jefferson spoke of “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” Locke also spoke of the “common good”, “the peace, safety, and public good of the people” as the end of government.

“Happiness” as a substitute for “good” or for “estates” may have been an echo of Wilson, and the phrase “happiness of the American Colonies” actually occurs in a passage that Jefferson did quote from Wilson. But then the Virginia Bill of Rights, drafted by George Mason only about a month before Jefferson wrote the Declaration, speaks of “happiness” also. The Virginians of that day spent a great deal of time discussing public questions, and, after all has been said, it seems impossible to determine whether Jefferson first thought of “happiness” as an end of government or of its pursuit as an “unalienable right” as a result of reading Wilson or as an outgrowth of conversation.

The other expressions in Wilson are to be found also in Locke, and were indeed part of the common stock of ideas of the period. Jefferson himself later wrote to Henry Lee with reference to the Declaration: “Neither aiming at originality of principles or sentiments, nor yet copied from any particular and previous writing, it was intended to be an expression of the American mind. . . . All its authority rests on the harmonizing sentiments of the day, whether expressed in conversation, in letters, in printed essays, or the elementary books of public right, as Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney, etc.”

On any, theory, then, Locke remains, to a large degree, the “ultimate source” of the philosophical position taken in the Declaration. Although he is quoted only once in the “Commonplace Book,” and only in connection with religious toleration and Christianity in the Appendix, yet “Jefferson knew and studied (him) separately,” and he was the source of many ideas Jefferson read elsewhere. It seems that Jefferson was more interested in the natural rights of our Anglo-Saxon ancestors than in Lockean philosophy as such, and the editor thinks that “it is very doubtful whether he was greatly influenced by him.” Yet statesmen make their appeals on “fundamental principles” even when they do not think in such terms. And in the main the “fundamental principles”—displayed in the Declaration as “self-evident truths”—upon which Jefferson based the claims of the colonists are, as the editor himself seems to think, certainly Lockean, directly or indirectly.

Furthermore, that Jefferson, in drawing up the Declaration, got at least one idea directly from Locke, seems to the reviewer a reasonable conclusion from a comparison of the following passages:

“Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established shonid not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are suffer-able, 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.” (Declaration).

“But it will be said this hypothesis lays a ferment for frequent rebeUion. . . . I answer such revolutions happen not upon every little mismanagement in public affairs. Great mistakes in the ruling part, many wrongs 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 nnder, and see whither they are going, it is not to be wondered that they should then rouse themselves, and endeavour to put the rule into such hands which may secure to them the ends for which government was at first erected. . . .” (Locke, Second Treatise of Civil Government, sees. 224-225).

The reviewer would recall to the reader’s mind that Jefferson, in the above-quoted letter, himself referred to Locke; and would also call attention to the fact that in the part of the Declaration just quoted Jefferson seems to be paraphrasing Locke, and especially that Jefferson’s phrase “a long train of abuses” is also Locke’s. Whether he had the text before him, or merely followed the idea, using an apt phrase that had stuck in his memory; and whether his direct debt to Locke was conscious or not, cannot perhaps be determined. But to the reviewer’s mind these are rather strong grounds for believing that in writing the Declaration of Independence Jefferson was directly as well as indirectly indebted to John Locke.


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