Jefferson’s Use of the Legal Word
by John Ragosta
In trying to understand someone’s arguments and conclusions, I generally find that it is useful to remember if they were trained as a lawyer, and this holds no less true in the case of Thomas Jefferson. While Jefferson had an extraordinary vision, and his thoughts and ideas often rambled beyond careful legal paths (not infrequently to be recalled by the ever-cautious legal draftsman, James Madison), Jefferson’s training as a lawyer is evident in much of his work and central to his vision of the new American republic.
I was reminded of this recently while reviewing the actions of the First Continental Congress (which Jefferson did not attend). One of the important disputes in Philadelphia in the late summer of 1774 was whether a remonstrance on the rights of the colonies should be based on natural rights, the rights of British citizens, or colonial charter rights. Not surprisingly, the new national politicians reached a political compromise, resolving to protest in the name of “the immutable laws of Nature, the principles of the English Constitution, and the several charters or compacts.” Had Jefferson been there, his Summary View of the Rights of British America suggests that he would have urged the congress to rely primarily on natural rights.
Summary View, Jefferson’s first significant literary and political composition, was intended as instructions for the Virginia delegation to the Continental Congress. It was not used for that purpose largely because it was too radical: insisting that Parliament had no authority over the colonies and that many recent British laws were not simply improper, but void. Rescued from obscurity when published as a pamphlet, Summary View had an important impact on public opinion and helped to propel Jefferson to prominence. While historians are undoubtedly correct to note that Summary View evidences a developing and sometimes confusing mix of arguments based on British and natural rights, the focus – as Jefferson insisted in retirement – clearly seems to be the latter.
This was not an unimportant issue for Jefferson and the delegates to the congress. Those seeking to rely on charter and British rights tended to be those most willing to concede broad authority to the British Crown and Parliament and, as later history would demonstrate, were the most committed to maintaining political ties with Great Britain.
In Summary Views, Jefferson, a well-trained lawyer, carefully parsed a series of recent Parliamentary enactments and concluded that Parliament had no authority to exercise sovereignty over equally legitimate legislatures constituted across the ocean. Similarly, Jefferson insisted that the king had no authority over the allocation of American lands, lands which were seized and held in complete freedom by people with the natural right to form new societies. (Jefferson was somewhat less careful in specifying the rights of Native Americans, although he would later evidence a lawyer’s desire to ensure that their lands, too, were subject to a clear, American legal title.)
Jefferson was suspicious of arguments made from charter rights. Not only did the charters assume an enormous amount of power vested in the king, but that premise might interfere with creating a wholly new polity based solely on republican interests. (I am reminded of the much heralded battle between Jefferson and some Federalists lawyers and judges concerning whether the British common law – with all of its implications, including a dominant legal position for Christianity – automatically became part of American law.) Jefferson specifically opposed not only prominent Parliamentary enactments, but seemingly much less important provisions that might provide a “precedent” for future usurpations.
Much more can be said on Jefferson’s use of the “legal word,” and I hope that we can take it up further at the Summer Jefferson Symposium June 21-24 www.virgnia.edu/lifetimelearning/symposium.