The American revolutionaries used reason to discern the natural moral law and based their rights on that. The French revolutionaries based their assertion of new rights on "pure reason," without first basing reason itself on a sound foundation, even going to the unreasonable length of enshrining "Reason" as a goddess of the new State-established and maintained religion. The essential difference in orientation is clearly evident when we examine the principles of political science used in forming the United States of America.
When the Virginia Convention met in the spring of 1776, they adopted a resolution to draft a declaration of fundamental natural rights that they believed King George III and his parliament were violating. As George Mason of Gunston Hall in Northern Virginia (near Alexandria) had a reputation as the most experienced legal writer in Virginia, he was the obvious choice to draw up the draft for the discussion and approval of the other delegates. As was his habit, he included a provision that destroyed the legal justification of chattel slavery, even though he was himself a slave owner:
That all men are by nature equally free and independent, and have certain inherent rights, of which they cannot, by any compact, deprive or divest their posterity; namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.As drafted, the Declaration states that all men have inherent (i.e., natural) rights, of which neither they nor their posterity can be deprived, regardless of the justification. All men have the right to live, to be free, and to acquire and possess private property: John Locke's famous triad of fundamental human rights of life, liberty, and property — but with a difference.
That difference is the fact that Mason (in common with Bellarmine, whom Mason appears to have studied) simply ignored "state of nature" theory and declared that all men have rights by nature, not as a result of entering into a social contract and agreeing to enter into society. Man is political by nature; he does not agree to enter society. He is already a member of society by nature unless he removes himself by the commission of a crime.
That man is naturally a member of society is not, however, a doctrine found anywhere in Locke or Sidney. They were firm adherents of the "state of nature" theory, virtually their sole point of agreement with Hobbes. That man is naturally a member of society, however, is found throughout Bellarmine's writings, notably in De Laicis.
If all men are naturally members of society, regardless of circumstances, it logically follows that this applies to slaves. The clear implication is that slaves — absent conviction of a crime for which the slave is actually and personally guilty — have the right to be free. If this sentence in the Virginia declaration passed unchallenged, the implication was that slave owners were themselves engaged in doing the very thing for which they were condemning George III and his parliament.
Even so, Mason might have gotten away with it . . . had he not had the reputation of making similar insertions in virtually every possible document at every opportunity. By having previously tipped his hand through his laudable habit of standing up to condemn an institution he despised, he made it impossible to slip it in where it would have done the most good. The "reluctant statesman" and even more reluctant slave owner outsmarted himself.
Being familiar with Mason's "tricks," the conservative ("aristocratic") delegates to the Virginia Convention were ready for him. As Robert Rutland describes the events surrounding the discussions leading up to the ratification of the Virginia Declaration,
After each delegate studied the proposals, the general debate opened on a sour note. Thomas Ludwell Lee [Mason's aide on the drafting committee] lamented in his nightly letter-writing sessions that "a certain set of aristocrats" had thrown up a line of defense in an effort to keep control of the Convention in conservative hands. Led by Robert Carter Nicholas, the old guard "kept us at bay on the first line" of the draft, Lee reported. Nicholas challenged the statement that all men are created equally free and independent. In a slaveholding society, the argument ran, all men were obviously not born free and equal. To pretend otherwise, the conservatives suggested, was to invite civil war on their own estates. (Robert A. Rutland, George Mason: Reluctant Statesman. Baton Rouge, Louisiana: Louisiana State University Press, 1961, 51-53)Consistent with liberal political philosophy, the conservative members amended Mason's language. Raising the issue of slavery in the very first line of their Declaration could derail the entire Convention. As Florette Henri reports,
Those opening words of Mason tore the convention apart.Mason was forced to let it pass. As Rutland reports,
"'All men are born equally free and independent' — pray, what does that mean?" demanded the conservative Robert Carter Nicholas. "Does it include my slaves?"
Nicholas' supporters joined the outcry. Were slaves to be set free? They would not accept such a declaration. With one hand it guaranteed Virginians the right to hold property, and with the other it snatched that property away — slave property. What sort of radical document was this? Was it intended to abolish slavery?
Of course, Mason secretly hoped it might. (Florette Henri, George Mason of Virginia. New York: Crowell-Collier Press, 1971, 93.)
As finally approved, the first sentence read "That all men are by nature equally free and independent, and have certain inherent rights, of which, when they enter into a state of society, they cannot, by any compact, deprive or divest their posterity; . . ." The italicized phrase, with its implicit proposition that slaves are not members of society, placated the opposition. (Rutland, op. cit., 54)While important, however, the focus on slavery and the natural right to be free overshadowed another natural right, "the means of acquiring and possessing property." Unfortunately, property was inextricably tied in with the slavery issue. The institution of black chattel slavery in the United States consisted of owning human beings as private property. To assert a natural right to be free for all men, and then equivocate by keeping some in bondage without the justification that they were criminals was a question not too many people had either the inclination or the ability to deal with. The issue at hand was political freedom for the American colonists, not natural freedom for people held in slavery.
When you added in the fact that a slave owner believed that his or her economic survival was tied to slavery just as much as to his or her ownership of large tracts of land, discussing slavery and private property at the same time made for an extremely volatile mix. If you asserted that private property in human beings — slavery — was illegitimate, it was a short leap to maintaining that all private property in anything was equally illegitimate.
The important issue here, however, is that Mason laid the groundwork for reconciling the collectivist and individualist positions. He somehow managed to insert the fact that the human person is both individual and social — political — into the Virginia Declaration of Rights. Even though it did not survive unedited, the fact that the idea was there is important — and that it made its way into the underlying political philosophy of the new country via Mason's influence through Jefferson on the Declaration of Independence. How Mason tied private property, slavery, and man as a political animal into a consistent whole will be examined in the next posting in this series.