Thomas Jefferson was an anarchist

Everything today is “there are two sides to every story.” Yet we look at our “established” beliefs and can barely imagine believing anything else. It’s easy to forget that, historically, everything has always had a “second side” to it. The “inalienable rights” of the Declaration of Independence, for example. As recently as 200 years ago, the conservatives-of-the-time were spinning the “just an alternate opinion” for that, as well.

“All men born free? Absurd and miserable nonsense! When the great complaint–a complaint made perhaps by the very same people at the same time–is that so many men are born slaves. Oh! but when we acknowledge them to be born slaves, we refer to the laws in being; which laws being void, as being contrary to those laws of nature which are the efficient causes of those rights of man that we are declaring, the men in question are free in one sense, though slaves in another; slaves, and free, at the same time: free in respect of the laws of nature–slaves in respect of the pretended human laws, which, though called laws, are no laws at all, as being contrary to the laws of nature.

This is the difference–the great and perpetual difference–betwixt the good subject, the rational censor of the laws, and the anarchist–between the moderate man and the man of violence. The rational censor, acknowledging the existence of the law he disapproves, proposes the repeal of it: the anarchist, setting up his will and fancy for a law before which all mankind are called upon to bow down at the first word–the anarchist, trampling on truth and decency, denies the validity of the law.”

So spake Jeremy Bentham in the early 1800’s, completely railroading the who concept of “natural law” and “God-given rights”. He actually said that people like Thomas Jefferson, who claim that there are “natural laws” above human-made laws, are essentially anarchists. He goes on:

“All men (i.e. all human creatures of both sexes) remain equal in rights? All men, meaning doubtless all human creatures. The apprentice, then, is equal in rights to his master; he has as much liberty with relation to the master, as the master has with relation to him; he has as much right to command and to punish him; he is as much owner and master of the master’s house, as the master himself. The case is the same as between ward and guardian. So again as between wife and husband. The madman has as good a right to confine anybody else, as anybody else has to confine him. The idiot has as much right to govern everybody, as anybody can have to govern him. The physician and the nurse, when called in by the next friend of a sick man seized with a delirium, have no more right to prevent his throwing himself out of the window, than he has to throw them out of it.

“All this is plainly and incontestably included in this article of the Declaration of Rights: in the very words of it, and in the meaning–if it have any meaning. Was this the meaning of the authors of it? Or did they mean to admit this explanation as to some of the instances, and to explain the article away as to the rest? Not being idiots, nor lunatics, nor under a delirium, they would explain it away with regard to the madman, and the man under a delirium. Considering that a child may become an orphan as soon as it has seen the light, and that in that case, if not subject to government, it must perish, they would explain it away, I think, and contradict themselves, in the case of guardian and ward. In the case of master and apprentice, I would not take upon me to decide; it may have been their meaning to proscribe that relation altogether; at least, this may have been the case, as soon as the repugnancy between that institution and this oracle was pointed out; for the professed object and destination of it is to be the standard of truth and falsehood, of right and wrong, in everything that relates to government. But to this standard, and to this article of it, the subjection of the apprentice to the master is flatly and diametrically repugnant. If it do not proscribe and exclude this inequality, it proscribes none: if it do not do this mischief, it does nothing.”

In case you’re a little bewildered by the early-nineteenth century language, he basically is saying that the whole proposition that “all people are created equal” is nonsense, and even if you interpret it to mean “all people should be equal” you are therefore saying that it should be illegal for there to be apprentices, it should be illegal for people to be locked up, and the madman has as much right to institutionalize a doctor as the other way around.

And when you consider his argument on its own terms, it makes a kind of sense. As all conservative arguments always do.

I bring this up only because you need to keep this in mind as you listen to the constant chatter on CNN and other news outlets about how “First we will hear one side, then we will hear the other. Who knows who is right?” Keep in mind that this kind of dialogue can be and has been put forth for every single belief that humans ever had: even the ones that we now take for granted.

Is waterboarding torture? Should we believe evolution? Are taxes just a form of theft? Anybody with a modicum of intelligence and skill at language can (and has) put forth an eloquent argument for either side. Just like our buddy Jeremy, here, put forth a strong and eloquent argument against the notion that freedom and equality as “natural human rights,” over 200 years ago.

But in the end, we know how we now feel about natural, inalienable human rights. And very few people even know the name of Jeremy Bentham.

So it will be with these other topics. Now, they are hotly debated; will see which side ends up being remembered.

Jeremy Bentham:

Jeremy Bentham



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Pings to this post

  1. […] also several philosophers who argued that the entire notion of “natural rights” was an absurd and philosophically incoherent fiction. Jeremy Bentham, in fact, questioned how it could be that supposedly axiomatic, incontrovertible […]

  2. […] That’s fine, except of course that logically it’s a terrible argument. Even in the 1700′s, when both American colonists and crazy French people were making claims about “inalienable rights,” there were plenty of philosophers who pointed out that the idea of “God given rights” was logically incoherent. […]

  3. […] wasn’t such a bad dude after all, the removal of Thomas Jefferson (who, after all, was a well-known anarchist), and the addition of John Calvin as one of the “inspirations” of the American […]


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