|| next || End the Wall! || e-mail || V&FT ||

The Ten Commandments in American History

This page is taken from America OnLine's "Separation of Church and State" Bulletin Board. (Jump works only for AOL subscribers.) I was told that Christianity had nothing to do with the legal system created by the Founding Fathers.

Of Rights and Duties: A Jeffersonian Dialogue
Paul Grimley Kuntz
Modern Age: A Quarterly Review, Vol. 38, No. 3, p.224

To whom more than to Thomas Jefferson should we look to answer the hard questions about rights? He formulated A Summary View of the Rights of British America, the Declaration of Independence, the Rights of Citizens of the Commonwealth of Virginia, and especially the Code of religious liberty. Although he was our ambassador (Minister Plenipotentiary) in Paris when his friend James Madison led the move to add the Bill of Rights to the Constitution, it is Jefferson who towers above his contemporaries as the great philosopher of rights. Yet we continue to ignore the fact that his full account was, in his language, of "Natural Rights and Duties.[2] [note2: TJ to Francis W. Gilmer, Monticello, June 7, 1816, develops the correlative ideas in the functions of legislation. Paul Leicester Ford, ed., The Writings of Thomas Jefferson (New York 1899), Vol. X, 31-33. Also, a slightly earlier letter to John Taylor, May 28, 1816, expounds a "moral principle of good government ...the right of instructing representatives, and their duty to obey." Ford, op.cit., Vol. X, 27-31. "What constitutes a state?" Not walls or moats, but "Men who their duties know; but know their rights: and knowing dare maintain."]
Could we be faced with a fallacious interpretation of our legal and moral relations because we have not paid attention to the duty side of the ledger? It is as though we could borrow money and not have debts. We are bombarded daily with the fallacy of considering human as only masculine, as though male could have any meaning without female. The converse is no less absurd. It's nonsense to have time that is only future with no past, or space that can have up without down. Wall Street, we are reminded by brokers, is not limited to one-way traffic.

Mr. Jefferson, as Secretary of State, reported to the Cabinet of President Washington that relations between nations are statements of reciprocal "rights and obligations."[3] Isn't that what we now mean when we say that our system is not merely one of liberty but "liberty under law" or "ordered liberty?" What Jefferson meant by duties was rooted in the Ten Commandments of Moses. If the "Jefferson Bible" means anything, in the version of the Decalogue revised by Jesus, "The love of God…is but a branch of our moral duties, which are generally divided into duties to God and duties to man."[4] Yet this does not, Jefferson adds, rule out the morality of the atheist. The full statement of the basis of the moral commandments is found in the second table of the Decalogue: "Thou shalt not kill, commit adultery, steal, bear false witness," which Jefferson found necessary and universal, and resting on the nature of obligation between persons in society.[5]

[note 3: It is states as well as citizens that bear to each other rights and obligations. This is most explicit in TJ to James Madison, Paris, August 8, 1789: "I know but one code of morality for men whether acting singly or collectively. He who says I will be a rogue when I act in company with a hundred others but an honest man when I act alone, will be believed in the former assertions, but not in the latter." Ford, op.cit., Vol V, 1892, 111. See application "Opinion on French Treaties," Ford, Vol. VI, 219-231.]

[note 4: TJ to Thomas Law, Poplar Forest, June 13, 1814, Thomas Jefferson Writings (New York, 1984), 1336. This perhaps the clearest identification of natural duties as commandments of Moses, brought down from Sinai on two tablets of stone (Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5).]

[note 5: Jefferson's first inaugural address appeals to the virtues inculcated by a "benign religion," Writings, loc.cit., 492-496.]

By studying Jefferson on duties we get to the heart of this most conscientious of political statesmen, and this allows us to comprehend the importance of protecting rights. The highest duty of the citizen is to defend his country, the patriotic motive, but this is done primarily by educating people in their duties as well as acquiring useful knowledge, languages, mathematics, history and science. On all levels, from the time of primary schooling, the literature to be learned is for its didactic import. The aim of the university, he noted, is to teach "virtue:"[7] [Note 7: In "Report of the Commons" for the University of Virginia, August 4, 1818, morality is linked to "the supreme ruler of the universe, the author of all the relations of morality, and of the laws and obligations these infer...." The moral obligations [are] those in which all sects agree...." Writings, lot. cit., 467.]
When Jefferson accepted office, such as becoming governor of Virginia, during the Revolutionary War, it was to perform the duties of that office. This was also true of every office he held. In his letters Jefferson stresses the need of fulfilling one's duties and teaching children what their duties are and how to make wise decisions, to chose right against wrong.[8] [note 8: Edwin Morris Betts and James Adam Bear, Jr., The Family Lettes of Thomas Jefferson (Columbia, Mo., 1966). A valuable collection of TJ's expressions about the duties of public office can be read in John P. Foley, The Jefferson Cyclopedia (New York, 1900), 268-269.

Biographers have been reluctant to deal with the dutiful side of Jefferson, because it might make him appear a prig. Jefferson himself never wanted to be a rigid moralist, but to use charm in inculcating wisdom, and to fit rules to circumstances. We now think only that Jefferson defended rights and Liberty as "pursuit of happiness." But his life was more truly obedience to duty.

|| next || End the Wall! || e-mail || V&FT ||

It is Now Illegal to Teach the Ten Commandments!

The Ten Commandments in American Legal History

1st || 2nd || 3rd || 4th || 5th || 6th || 7th || 8th || 9th || 10th