Skip to main content

Garry Wills and the New Debate Over the Declaration of Independence

ISSUE:  Spring 1980
As an actual event, the signing of the Declaration was what it was; as a remembered event it will be, for Mr. Everyman, what Mr. Everyman contrives to make it: will have for him significance and magic, much or little or none at all, as it fits well or ill into his little world of interests and aspirations and emotional comforts.
Carl Becker

Among the books which appeared in the Bicentennial’s harvest of scholarship, Garry Wills” Inventing America is probably among the most important and certainly among the most controversial. As one reads the book and reactions to it, he can appreciate Paul Conkin’s studied attempt at a balanced assessment. “I have never struggled with a more perverse book,” said Conkin. “Its strengths justify all the effort, while its faults insure intense frustration. Carry Wills has much to teach an audience. But he so often misinforms that one soon doubts any net gain.”

Recipient of both the National Book Circle Critics Award and the Organization of American Historians” Merle Curti Award for the most important contribution in American intellectual history published within the past two years, the book has been lauded by many of the ablest contemporary American historians. Inventing America is “the best and most thorough analysis of the Declaration ever written,” said David Brion Davis, “. . .one of the most brilliant studies of Jefferson yet to appear.” It is simply “the best book on Jefferson’s thought ever written,” countered Gordon Wood, “. . .a stunning work of history.” Senior American historians repeatedly paid high tribute to Wills” creative historical imagination. Arthur Schlesinger called Inventing America “a tour de force of speculative scholarship.” “The results are little short of astonishing,” wrote Edmund Morgan. “. . .no one has offered so drastic a revision or so close or convincing an analysis of the document itself as Wills has now presented.”

Yet, while the book’s initial reception was exceptionally warm and enthusiastic, later reviewers have raised serious charges against it. They range from criticism of its cumbersome organization and pretentious style to accusations of serious factual error and deliberate misrepresentation. Inventing America is “terrible intellectual history,” said Judith Shklar. “We are still without a really good book on the Declaration.” Wills” colleague at Johns Hopkins, Kenneth Lynn, was more severe. Accusing the author of deliberate misrepresentation of Locke, the Scottish common sense philosophers, Jefferson, the Declaration, and the historians whose interpretations he attempted to revise, Lynn dismissed the book as “the tendentious report of a highly political writer whose . . .obvious aim is to supply the history of the Republic with as pink a dawn as possible.” Harry Jaffa, responded that “Professor Lynn is right as far as he goes. But he does not go far enough.” Inventing America, says Jaffa, is “a book which should never have been published, certainly not in its present form. Its errors are so egregious that any reasonably intelligent graduate student—or undergraduate student—checking many of its assertions against their alleged sources, would have demanded, at the least, a considerable revision.” In the latest critique, Ronald Hamowy expands upon the charges that Wills has misrepresented the Scottish philosophers and suggests that he has invented a Jefferson, a Declaration, and an America which never existed.

Wills” recent autobiography, Confessions of a Conservative, offers some clues to understanding these diverse reactions to Inventing America. Born in Atlanta, Georgia in 1934, Carry Wills grew up in Wisconsin, where he attended parochial schools taught by Dominican nuns. His intensely self-conscious Catholicism led to a Jesuit education at St. Louis University and Cincinnati’s St. Xavier University. While at St. Louis, the young seminarian was among a small minority of dissenters from the fashion of Catholic liberalism. But in 1955 they took courage from stray copies of William Buckley’s new journal, National Review. Two years later, Wills submitted an article attacking “Timestyle” writing to the conservative periodical. Its argument anticipated his later thesis that “the Market is death to style, personality and integrity.” Impressed by the article, Buckley summoned its young author to his New York office. Already on the verge of leaving the Jesuit fold, Wills became a regular contributor to National Review in 1958 and continued his graduate work in classics at Yale.

His introduction to the circle at National Review was the first of two major turns in Wills” public career. Its lasting impact is evident, not only in the sensitive personal recollections which make up the first part of his Confessions, but also in his recent allegorical novel of suspense, At Button’s. More than one reviewer has noted that Thatcher Harris, founder of the novel’s club of Addisonians, has more than a passing similarity to William Buckley, and the club, including its CIA intrigue, could pass for the early crowd at National Review. Among its senior staff members, Wills recalls, Buckley, his sister, Priscilla, Willmoore Kendall, and James Burnham had been in the Central Intelligence Agency, and fellow editor Frank Meyer seriously believed that Burnham directed the journal as an Agency operation.

More important than the CIA connection, however, was the fact that at National Review in the late fifties and early sixties Wills found himself near the center of efforts by conservative ideologues of various stripes to identify common ground for their challenge to contemporary American liberalism. The task was not easily accomplished, for as George Nash has shown in The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945, those who called themselves “conservative” included radically individualistic libertarians, “new conservative” traditionalists, and former leftists now motivated largely by their hostility to communism. The libertarians had reservations about the anti-Communists” call for national mobilization to meet the challenge of international communism. Traditionalists struggled with the problem of what there was to preserve in a society whose tradition was largely defined in liberal terms. Undaunted, William Buckley was determined to hammer out a common platform under National Review’s auspices. “Are you a conservative?” Buckley asked. Wills answered that he did not know. “Are distributists conservative?” Citing the editor of Commonweal, Buckley replied: “Philip Burnham tells me they are not.” Looking back upon that conversation, Wills notes that “It was an exchange with the seeds of much later misunderstanding.”

Therein lay the kernel of misunderstanding between Wills and his fellow conservatives; and therein lies the seed for understanding Wills” interpretation of the Declaration and much of the criticism it has generated. For Inventing America is a distributist’s reconstruction of the Declaration and its major critics represent the libertarian, traditionalist, and antiCommunist strands on the American Right.


In 1961, when he had finished his doctoral work at Yale, Wills published a study of the English father of distributism, G. K. Chesterton. “Named for its goal of distributing property more equally to prevent the centralization of power in state capitalism,” says Wills, distributism’s favored property for distribution was land, though unions could also bestow a kind of property in one’s job.

Part of the program was simply vigorous anti-trust legislation, more laws to favor small shops and businesses. But another proposal was to give citizens a certain acreage to work or lease, so long as it was not sold to a larger combination. Much in distributism resembles the agrarian values and the decentralized “ward system” of government expounded by Jefferson.

But if his distributism gives Wills certain affinities for an appreciation of Jefferson, his ideological stance put him in tension with his fellow conservatives as early as 1962.

Although he admits to having grown up a Catholic Cold War warrior and that he would have cheered Senator Joseph McCarthy had he not been behind the Jesuits” locked doors during the Senator’s prime, Wills had read little political theory prior to 1961 and had done most of his writing for National Review on the arts. But he read the major Western theorists in the summer of that year in order to prepare an essay, “The Convenient State.” Marred only by its turgid prose, the essay contained the elements of all that Wills has argued in his later, better-known works, Nixon Agonistes and Inventing America.

Stimulated by debate between libertarian and authoritarian conservatives, Wills sought to recast their discussion of the relative importance of freedom and order in society. With Willmoore Kendall, a Yale political scientist, he believed that the more important questions were: “What kind of order is there to be, not how much? And based upon what authority?” Thus Wills distinguished between two traditions in the Western experience, the Order of Justice and the Order of Convenience, roughly corresponding to the popular distinction between liberal and conservative. Appealing to reason and insisting that justice is the aim of the state, the Order of Justice has dominated the Western intellectual tradition since the time of Plato. The Order of Convenience, by contrast, has been wrought out of experience, compromise, and expedience, embodied in the real political institutions of the past, and usually hedged about by an accumulation of constitutional safeguards. Taking his cue from St. Augustine, Wills objected to the assumption that the state was grounded in justice. Whether overtly theocratic or in the masked theocracy of Lincoln’s ideal of a state “dedicated to a proposition,” the state’s assumption of a moral, even a religious, role inevitably led to its betrayal of freedom. Advocating the Order of Convenience, Wills insisted that the state must act justly, but it must not presume to be the arbiter of justice.

In the debate between libertarians and authoritarians, Wills recalls, his Catholicism had forced him to side with the latter. “Individualist and Catholic are night and day,” he argues,

since kath-holou means permeating (literally, “through the entirety”). . . . Catholic social thought began not with the individual but with the family as the basis and model for society (a starting point I would later find in Francis Hutcheson and all his eighteenth century disciples, including Hume and Jefferson). So I ended my essay with a rejection of libertarianism as in any sense conservative.

Whereas his political mentor at Yale, Willmoore Kendall, had sought to locate authority in a democratic majoritarianism, Wills learned from Samuel Johnson to ground it in a commonality of interests, from John Henry Newman to locate it in “property” in the large sense, and from Augustine in overlapping loves. “I was approximating . . . Hutcheson’s concept of benevolence as the basis of the social contract,” says Wills. “The point was not, as Willmoore thought, to find and assert the binding authority, Locke’s “power to conclude,” to which all must defer, but to find an ethic of deferrals, putting off conflict in the name of common good things held.”

Although Frank Meyer and William Buckley were both attempting to fuse the three strands of “conservatives” into a cohesive intellectual and political force and although both of them included “The Convenient State” in anthologies of conservative thought, Wills” essay had already set him over against libertarians, traditionalists, and anti-Communists. It had read libertarians out of the conservative camp altogether. Later Wills would identify individualism as the essence of liberalism. His differences with the others were less evident. Yet he had told the traditionalists that they had no great tradition of abstract ideas to celebrate—that primarily belonged to the liberals—but only the compromises and conventions of real social practice. And, although he still thought himself an anti-Communist, Wills” plea for a modest conception of the state would provide little justification for national crusades of any sort.

Between 1962 and 1968, Carry Wills would sort out the implications of his own political thinking. In the process, other conservatives came to feel that he had abandoned their camp altogether. In Nixon Agonistes, he identified the one commitment he still shared with fellow conservatives, a common enemy: liberalism. Again, to the discomfort of conservative traditionalists, he acknowledged Louis Hartz’s argument that America has had a tradition of liberal orthodoxy. Wills brilliantly merged this historical perspective with his own thesis that liberalism is the politics of the marketplace and that the market is death to style, personality, and integrity. Thus, in 1968, it found embodiment in the man with the least of these: Richard Nixon. In a stunning critique of liberalism, Wills examined how its market modes of thought dominate and pervert our moral, economic, political, and intellectual life. He challenged Hartz’s assumption that our political theory and practice are coextensive, however. “If the theory of government has been liberal,” he argued, “the practices of society have been decidedly illiberal.” The distinction paralleled that drawn in his essay on “The Convenient State.”


Yet, having hitherto drawn a devastating portrait of the American liberal tradition, in Inventing America he examines a document and its author, often cited as the charter and patron saint of that tradition, and finds them not guilty. We can hope to understand the Declaration of Independence, says Wills, only if we begin by distinguishing three declarations: the Revolutionary Charter, Congress’s revised document; the Jeffersonian Treatise, a scientific, moral, and sentimental statement; and the National Symbol, which we have received from our tradition of patriotic rhetoric. Overlaid with romantic 19th-century interpretations, the National Symbol calls up popular meanings far removed from those intended either by its original author or its sponsoring Congress. Extending from Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address (a nation “dedicated to a proposition”) to Carl Becker’s progressive scholarship (a Lockean orthodoxy), those interpretations have led us to think of the Declaration as a creed to which good and true Americans must give assent; and, according to Wills, creedal fundamentalism has led to our periodic national inquisitions. Wills thus appeals to the skeptical spirit of Jefferson to save him, the Declaration, and us from the cultic requirements of liberal intolerance.

Wills” primary target is Carl Becker’s The Declaration of Independence, which for 50 years was considered the definitive treatment of its subject. The key to his strategy is to take seriously Jefferson’s own distress with changes made by the Continental Congress in his draft of the Declaration. Becker and most historians after him had dismissed it as exaggerated pride of authorship and congratulated the Congress on its improvements in the text. In doing so, Becker played down the significance of the Declaration’s long list of specific grievances and stressed what he saw as the Lockean assumptions of its preamble. By reversing Becker’s approach to the text, Wills would revolutionize our understanding of the Declaration.

Wills” opening examination of the “Revolutionary Charter,” the Declaration as revised by the Continental Congress, lays the groundwork to justify his approach to the document. In a series of finely sketched portraits, he traces the fears and loyalties, the provincial divisions and priorities which hedged the delegates” cautious course toward a declaration of independence. As Englishmen, they looked back to the tradition of 1688 and rested their case, not upon such abstractions as the Declaration’s preamble would contain, but upon its lengthy delineations of a history of petitions and specific grievances which had gone unheeded by the English crown. Jefferson himself espoused a theory that the original colonists had expatriated themselves from British jurisdiction and then voluntarily adopted the English king as their own to form “a perpetual league and amity” with the English people. Underlying all of the specific grievances, then, for Jefferson, was a central charge that the British people had violated that bond of loyalty by asserting the supremacy of Parliament over the American colonies, even by stationing mercenaries in their midst, and thus forcing the Americans to sever the ties of loyalty to England and to treat her merely as one among the nations of the earth.

Wills” careful attention to congressional changes in Jefferson’s document reverses previous historians” assessments of their importance. Whereas others had held that the only major deletion was the omission of the grievance on slavery, Wills argues that this was a relatively trivial change, which incidentally freed the founding fathers from a hypocritical accusation that the king was promising freedom to the slaves. Committed, as they were, to protecting the rights of Englishmen as embodied in their particular colonial charters, the delegates declared the 13 states independent from England and from each other. In doing so, they dropped all references to what Wills calls Jefferson’s “wild and groundless” theory of expatriation and adoption. But it was these deletions, he insists, which so irritated the Virginian.

Wills explains the cause of Jefferson’s vexation in the central section of Inventing America, where he examines the Declaration as it came from the author’s hand. Its language derived first of all and took its authority from the 18th century’s scientific worldview. Jefferson believed that an accurate observation of human events could lead one to discern laws of society analogous to those of nature. His belief that the land belongs to the living and his fascination with mathematical exactitude, says Wills (“Give him three of anything and he can work out the most amazing sums.”), led Jefferson to a social calculus which fixed the limits of any social contract at 20 years. Liberal interpreters of Jefferson have praised the “moral ideal” in his call for a revolution every 20 years, but it rested upon the naive assumptions of an archaic science, according to Wills, and its rationale was not logical, possible, or moral. (Close readers of Nixon Agonistes and Inventing America will note that Wills uses precisely the same argument against Jefferson’s limitation of the social contract to 20 years that he had used against the American metaphor of “the race” in Nixon Agonistes.) Jefferson’s social calculus also insisted that a measurable public happiness was “the test and justification of any government.” But in order to understand his insistence that such happiness was an “inalienable right,” one has to locate its roots in the 18th century’s moral philosophy.

Because his papers burned in 1770, Jefferson’s intellectual biographers have concentrated upon his thought after the writing of the Declaration. But that has made discussion of his thinking in the Declaration highly speculative. Becker traced it to a Lockean orthodoxy that was “in the air”; Daniel Boorstin sought to reconstruct Jefferson’s “lost world” from the moral sense of Philadelphia’s intellectual community; and Gilbert Chinard and Adrienne Koch located the origins of Jefferson’s thought among the continental philosophes. In a sophisticated biographical and textual analysis, Wills makes his single most important claim upon Jeffersonian studies—one which would re-order the entire field. Insisting that there is no evidence that the Virginian ever read Locke’s Second Treatise on Government, he argues that Jefferson was far more dependent for his political thought on the Scottish common sense philosophers, particularly Thomas Reid and Frances Hutcheson.

Whether Jefferson’s thought was largely Lockean or whether it derived from the Scottish common sense philosophers is no mere scholastic argument, according to Wills. If he is correct, Jefferson’s political thought is much less individualistic than we thought. For the Scots, government rested not upon a social contract agreed to by autonomous individuals in pursuit of their own self-interest, but upon a principle of sociability and benevolence. Moreover, if Jefferson’s thought derives from Scottish common sense philosophy, it means that “property” is subsumed under the primary values of “life” and “liberty,” whereas if it is Lockean, as Becker claimed, “property” is the primary value which stands as the guarantor of “life” and “liberty.” Finally, and by extension, if Jefferson stands with the Scots, then we must revise harsh judgments of Jefferson’s attitudes toward slavery and race relations. While the Lockean attitude toward property sanctioned slavery as legitimate, the Scots” primary emphases “life” and “liberty” denied it any ultimate justification. Although Jefferson believed the Negro was handicapped by certain fixed inferiorities, when he praised him for having a highly developed moral sense, Jefferson was not merely cloaking his “racism” in a palliative. For the Scottish philosophers and for Jefferson, that moral sense was man’s highest faculty and, according to Wills, such praise acquits him of the charge of racism.

Nevertheless, Wills” Jefferson is hardly an adequate counselor to a pluralistic America, for with the Scottish philosophers he assumed the prior necessity of a shared ethos and ties of sentiment for a viable social order. He could hold that “that government is best which governs least” because he assumed a social homogeneity which required little coercive action. Had he been more Lockean in his thinking, says Wills, Jefferson might have been more tolerant of acts of individual emancipation. But because he doubted the ability of two peoples of backgrounds so diverse as Englishmen and Africans to develop those ties of loyalty, he proposed harsh laws against individual emancipation and rested his hopes in plans for a graduated general emancipation and colonization of the slaves. “This position reminds one somewhat of the Distributists” version of Zionism,” noted one reviewer, “—and it is from Distributism that Wills” own communitarianism is derived.”


But if Inventing America is a distributist’s reading of Thomas Jefferson, stressing the agrarian and communitarian character of his thought, the acute criticism it has received is just as largely shaped by the assumptions and values of each critic. Historian Kenneth Lynn’s brutal assault on the book comes as no particular surprise. His reviews for Commentary in the past year have been such that one would think that Norman Podhoretz sends only wretched books for Lynn to review. Yet his attack on Wills fits a pattern outlined in Nash’s work on post-World War II conservative thought. The Old Leftists who formed the anti-Communist block gathered around National Review have more recently been succeeded by a younger generation of former leftists become “neo-conservatives.” In Commentary and The Public Interest, the neoconservatives have sought to shift the weight of American thought to the Right, with attacks upon “presentism” in historical studies, “apocalypticism” in social analysis, and the New Left in general.

Lynn’s recent attack upon Christopher Lasch’s The Culture of Narcissism exemplifies the case. He acknowledged that ours has become a self-indulgent culture. But finding several typographical errors in the book by “our apocalyptic author,” Lynn said that there were “examples of the stupefaction of the privileged classes which bother me even more, namely, the sloppy mistakes of the middle-aged professor who wrote the book.” Therein, said Lynn, lay “the inability of Christopher Lasch and other writers on the Left to recognize their own contribution to the destruction of cultural standards.”

The Johns Hopkins professor is not alone among Commentary’s neoconservatives to have attacked Carry Wills. Referring to Wills” introduction to Lillian Hellman’s Scoundrel Time, Nathan Glazer wrote that Wills “tells us with no hint of embarrassment that he prefers Communist totalitarianism to democracy.” Peter Steinfels takes note of that remark in his recent study of The Neoconservatives. “Wills tells us nothing of the sort,” Steinfels points out.

He writes as though the United States initiated Cold War hostilities—and should not have. Take issue with that, if you please, or with Wills’s account of the connivance between liberalism and McCarthyism; but no degree of faultfinding with Wills’s facts or his historical sensitivity adds up to a preference for Communist totalitarianism. That Glazer “deduces” such a preference and writes that Wills “tells us” of it “with no hint of embarrassment” only suggests how easily neoconservatives abrogate to themselves the task of establishing other people’s loyalty, how naturally they conduct controversies in terms of who shall or shall not be considered, to cite Glazer again, among “the principal enemies of freedom.”

Lynn’s charge that Inventing America is “the tendentious report of a highly political writer whose unannounced but nonetheless obvious aim is to supply the history of the Republic with as pink a dawn as possible” should be seen against that background of careless charges by neoconservative reviewers at Commentary.

Had Wills been successful, Lynn acknowledged, “a new nation, conceived in liberty, would have been transmogrified into a new nation, conceived in communality.” But the book is “careless about language, displays no feeling for historical circumstance, is badly organized, rebarbatively written and replete with factual errors.” Lynn points to significant parallels in language between the Declaration and Locke’s Second Treatise, for example. But Edmund Morgan, who had praised Inventing America, had already pointed out those parallels, and Wills has acknowledged them in a new edition of the book. The ultimate offense, for Lynn, is that “in the world of the 70’s the cult of egality and “human rights” is served by many priests.” Lumping Morgan and David Brion Davis with Wills, Lynn charges them with “shameless pandering to the Zeitgeist.

Wills responded to Lynn’s review in his syndicated newspaper column with the suggestion that Lynn was a “commie hunter,” and Lynn replied in the Baltimore Sun with the suggestion that Wills was indulging in McCarthyite character assassination and innuendo. “It is not his leftist views per se that bother me,” Lynn reiterated, “but rather his imposition of those views upon the mind of the man who wrote the Declaration of Independence.” More to the point is that, in their charges and counter-charges, Wills and the neoconservatives are both willing to impose their views upon the past in hopes of shaping the Zeitgeist.

More interesting than Lynn’s neoconservative left-baiting, however, is the response of traditionalist Harry Jaffa to Inventing America. Now a political scientist at Claremont, Jaffa was a student of Leo Strauss at the University of Chicago, and from Strauss he learned the superiority of “the ancients” to “the moderns” in political thought, the superiority of “natural law” to individualistic “natural rights.” The implications of that point of view for interpreting American history are substantial. It rejects the moderns” emphasis upon individual rights, states rights, and limited government, in favor of nationalistic conceptions of the Union and a powerful government “dedicated to a proposition,” actively inculcating virtue and improving society.

In the case of Harry Jaffa, this has led to a career in celebration of Abraham Lincoln and his interpretation of “a nation dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” as the fundamental idea in the American political tradition. Thus, among contemporary American conservatives, Jaffa has argued vigorously for democracy and equality as conservative values. Best known as the author of presidential candidate Barry Goldwater’s 1964 campaign slogan (“Extremism in the defence of liberty is no vice; moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue”), Jaffa rightly discerns in “The Convenient State” and Wills” assault upon the Order of Justice the seed of what he finds objectionable in Inventing America.

Although he joins Lynn in lamenting the intellectual spirit of the age, Jaffa sees it not simply as a conspiratorial design of the left but the product of a “tacit alliance between the epigones of Karl Marx and those of John C. Calhoun.” Only thus can one explain, he says, the enthusiastic reception given Eugene Genovese’s tribute to the ante-bellum South in Roll, Jordan, Roll and to Wills” communitarian version of Jefferson. Jaffa knows that Wills is no Marxist; but he vigorously argues that “the premises of Inventing America flow as surely from the work of Willmoore Kendall as Kendall’s flow from that of John C. Calhoun.”

From Kendall’s Basic Symbols of the American Political Tradition, says Jaffa, Wills learned to discount Lincoln’s interpretation of the Declaration as an egalitarian manifesto and, ultimately, from Calhoun he absorbed the notion that the Declaration has no legal status and that its signing was intended to announce the independence of 13 states from England and from each other. On these two points, Jaffa’s critique is telling. The delegates to the Continental Congress were charged with establishing a confederal union, one in which powers appropriate to a central government would be granted to it and those remaining would be reserved to the states. Had he taken the time to examine the United States Code, Wills would have found that the Declaration is its first law of the land and that both the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution date the founding of the nation from the signing of the Declaration.

Finally, Jaffa joins Morgan and Lynn in pointing to significant parallels between the language of the Declaration and that in Locke’s Second Treatise and reiterates that where parallels to Hutcheson are significant, they are Lockean in content. The Declaration is, however, not a purely Lockean document, according to Jaffa. A Straussian traditionalist, as well as an American nationalist, Jaffa suggests that the redeeming ancient influence of Aristotle underlay this fundamental document in the American tradition.


Neoconservative Lynn and traditionalist Jaffa have most recently been joined by libertarian Ronald Hamowy in the attack upon Wills” interpretation of Jefferson. A student of Friedrich Hayek at the University of Chicago, Hamowy was among the founders of the New Individualist Review. As early as 1961, Hamowy chastised National Review for betraying libertarian values in its attempt to forge a conservative synthesis. Buckley’s journal espoused a bellicose foreign policy in the name of anti-Communism and a racist imperialism in violation of the universal natural rights philosophy of the Declaration of Independence. In its domestic policy, Buckley’s conservatism was insufficiently committed to civil liberties, a free market economy, and separation of church and state to satisfy Hamowy’s libertarian values. In the midst of the 1964 Goldwater campaign, he warned in an essay in Modern Age that the traditionalist and anti-Communist camps in the conservative coalition were often hostile to freedom and capitalism, suspicious of reason, and too willing to impose their own values upon others. Now a member of the History Department at the University of Alberta, Hamowy is also consulting editor of Inquiry, the libertarian voice of San Francisco’s Cato Institute.

Hamowy does not doubt that Jefferson was familiar with the Scottish philosophers in 1776, but he reasserts Becker’s argument that the theory of the revolution affirmed in the Declaration is undoubtedly Lockean. Not only are there significant parallels between the Declaration and Locke’s Second Treatise, says Hamowy, but on all those points at issue, unlike the other Scottish philosophers, Hutcheson had followed Locke’s political thought. Like Jaffa, Hamowy points out that Jefferson nowhere refers to Hutcheson as an influence in his drafting of the Declaration. “Indeed, Hutcheson, who among the Scots comes closest in his views to those expressed in the Declaration, is not once quoted, cited, referred to, or recommended, in any connection, in any of Jefferson’s writings!” By contrast, says Hamowy, Wills minimizes all the evidence for Locke’s influence upon Jefferson. In writing the Declaration, then, Jefferson may have had Hutcheson or, more likely, Locke in mind, but certainly not the other Scots.

According to Hamowy, Wills has misrepresented Jefferson, Hutcheson, and Locke on such key concepts as equality, inalienable rights, property, and the pursuit of happiness. The critic’s own individualism is evident in his admittedly conjectural explanation of Jefferson’s substitution of pursuit of happiness for Locke’s property. “When Jefferson speaks of an inalienable right to the pursuit of happiness,” says Hamowy,

he means that men may act as they choose . . . by determining the path to their own earthly and heavenly salvation as they alone see fit. Governments may infringe this right only at the peril of violating the social contract on which their legitimacy ultimately rests. This appears to be the only interpretation consistent both with Jefferson’s views respecting individual autonomy and with the structure and language of the Declaration.

His individualism is evident, too, in the offense he takes in Wills” construing of a political document as a moral treatise. “There are many things that morality enjoins or commands of individuals,” says Hamowy, “which no signer of the Declaration, including Jefferson, would have regarded as applying to the civil magistrate.” Finally, he turns a methodological reservation about Inventing America to his own libertarian purposes. Having chastised Wills for failing to make use of Jefferson’s preliminary drafts of the Declaration, Hamowy points out that where the final document says “all men are created equal”—a claim which Wills regards as critical to understanding Jefferson’s basic communitarianism—Jefferson had in an earlier draft written that “all men are created equal and independent.” The Scottish philosophers would have been appalled by such a denial of man’s innate sociability and sense of benevolence, Hamowy concludes, but it was perfectly consistent with Locke and the revolutionary Whig tradition which inspired Jefferson.

The fact remains, of course, that it was Jefferson, not the Congress, who dropped “and independent” from his draft of the Declaration. Wills” critics have, nevertheless, established the fact that Inventing America overstates the case against Locke and for the Scottish common sense philosophers. But in doing so, neoconservatives, traditionalists, and libertarians have sought to reclaim Jefferson from Wills” distributism by finding their own highest values in the Sage of Monticello. If this new debate over the Declaration began with an assault upon Carl Becker’s Declaration of Independence, it continues as a vindication of Everyman His Own Historian. “ Every American interprets Jefferson differently,” John Diggens has said in another context, “but for a conservative to comprehend his genius he must grasp the contrary tensions within a single intellect. . . .”


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading