In 1940, the late Fulton J. Sheen had a few comments on what he meant by “Freedom Under God,” which — by no coincidence — just happened to be the title of the book he was writing at the time. In the chapter on “Communism, Capitalism, and Liberty” on page 75 of the 2013 Just Third Way Edition, Sheen listed what he called “the Three Declarations”:
“One, He kept His body or His property free, therefore He could give it to us. That was the first and a spiritual Declaration of Independence; a God man who kept His soul free gave it back again to God. The second Declaration of Independence written under its inspiration was a political one which proclaimed that man has rights independent of a State. The third Declaration of Independence remains to be written; namely, the economics in which spiritual men will stand on their own because they can call something their own.”
Sheen wasn’t often wrong, but in this case he was — a little. There was a declaration of economic independence, nearly a month before “the” Declaration of Independence. George Mason included ownership in the first draft of the Virginia Declaration of Rights, on which Thomas Jefferson modeled the Declaration of Independence. As the declaration was amended and adopted, the first paragraph read,
“SECTION I. 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; namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.”
If you’re really into natural law theory, you’ll see the problem in the paragraph as it was amended from what Mason drafted. The problem was that the “Conservatives” in the Virginia Convention forced Mason to add the qualifier “when they enter into a state of society.”
Do you see why Mason objected so strongly to the qualifying phrase? By removing slaves, who were considered as not having “enter[ed] into a state of society,” from the class of men able to exercise inherent rights, slave-owners could continue to own slaves without ostensibly violating their own declaration.
Obviously this was nonsense. Humanity is by nature “political,” and therefore by nature a member of society. The decision is whether to remain, enter, or form a particular society, not to become a political animal — humanity is already that by nature.
The qualifier that the Conservatives added is therefore a contradiction in terms, but without it the Conservatives would have withdrawn from the Convention, and Virginia would have withdrawn from the Revolution. The American Revolution would have come to a halt before it was even under way.
Jefferson removed property from the list of inalienable rights when he drafted the Declaration of Independence, but he inserted a paragraph that would have abolished slavery. In this writer’s opinion (meaning it can’t be proved), Jefferson knew full well that the Conservatives in the Continental Congress would force the removal of the slavery provision.
The Conservatives might, however, let the phrasing remain in the opening of the Declaration that implied that slaves have inalienable rights as human beings the same as non-slaves — which they did. In effect, Jefferson “traded” an explicit condemnation of slavery for inserting the basis for the abolition of slavery into the Declaration.
And you wonder why so many people detest politics.