Liberty & Equal Rights
In selecting excerpts from Montesquieu's Spirit of the Laws from those copied by Jefferson in his Commonplace Book, there appeared an interesting difference on the question of Liberty that throws light on Jefferson's view. He had copied the following passage from Montesquieu, Bk. XI, ch. 3:
"Political liberty does not consist in an unlimited freedom. In governments, that is, in societies directed by laws, liberty can consist only in the power of doing what we ought to will, and in not being constrained to do what we ought not to will."
So far, so good. Jefferson probably would have agreed with that statement, contingent only on how one defines "what we ought to will" and "what we ought not to will," as we shall soon see. But Montesquieu goes further, and here is where he and Jefferson part company. Montesquieu:
"We must have continually present in our minds the difference between independence and liberty. Liberty is a right of doing whatever the laws permit, and if a citizen could do what they forbid he would be no longer possessed of liberty, because all his fellow citizens would have the same power."
Now, contrast that with Jefferson's statement on the limits of liberty:
"Of liberty I would say that, in the whole plenitude of its extent, it is unobstructed action according to our will. But rightful liberty is unobstructed action according to our will within limits drawn around us by the equal rights of others. I do not add 'within the limits of the law,' because law is often but the tyrant's will, and always so when it violates the right of an individual." --Thomas Jefferson to I. Tiffany, 1819.
Both Jefferson and Montesquieu agree that rightful political liberty is not unlimited freedom. But Montesquieu defines the limits on liberty in terms of established law, whereas Jefferson defines those limits in terms of the equal rights of others, noting that the limits of the law cannot be taken as a standard, because "law is often but the tyrant's will, and ALWAYS so when it violates the right of an individual." To Jefferson, the overriding consideration is the EQUAL RIGHTS of individuals. Montesquieu's weaker position is the danger of anarchy that comes from being able to do what the law forbids. Jefferson founds his view of the limits of liberty, not on the need for order in a society, but on the fundamental notion that individuals possess "inherent and inalienable rights," and it is the fact that all other individuals possess those same rights that places the only rightful curbs on those rights.
Thus, with a political philosophy based on respect for the equal rights of all, Jefferson rises to higher ground than either Montesquieu with his view centered on the authority and orderliness of the state, or the anarchists with their view centered on the authority and independence of the individual. Each individual in Jefferson's world is a social being with equal rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Each joins with others to work together in order better to fulfill their mutual needs and aspirations.
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