Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Jefferson's Biological Science of Equality, Race, and Slavery

I have argued that Thomas Jefferson's affirmation of human equality of natural rights and his condemnation of slavery as a violation of those natural rights can be confirmed by Darwinian biological science.  My reasoning for this is elaborated in my chapter on slavery in Darwinian Natural Right, and some of what I will write here comes from that chapter.

A common objection to my argument is that it commits the naturalistic fallacy by mistakenly trying to derive moral values from scientific facts.  Some people see Jefferson himself committing the same fallacy in assuming that the moral principle of human equality could be studied by science as a biological fact, which creates a contradiction in Jefferson's writings insofar as his natural science of racial inequality contradicts his moral teaching about human equality as a "self-evident truth."  This position has been argued, for example, by Daniel Boorstin (1948) and Jean Yarbrough (1991).

Against this position, I have contended that there is no naturalistic fallacy in seeing natural moral judgment as based on hypothetical imperatives that have a "given/if/then" structure: Given what we know about the nature of human beings and the world in which they live, if we want to pursue happiness while living in society with each other, then we ought to adopt a social structure that conforms to human nature in promoting human happiness in society.  So, for example, given what we know about human vulnerability and human propensities to violent aggression, if we want to pursue happiness, peace, and prosperity in our society, then we ought to have laws against murder, rape, assault, and theft.  Consequently, the laws against murder, rape, assault, and theft are natural moral laws.  I have elaborated this thought in some posts herehere, and here.

The same sort of reasoning is implicit in Jefferson's writings about equality, race, and slavery.  Although readers of the Declaration of Independence have often criticized it for not condemning racial slavery as violating the "self-evident" truths that "all men are created equal," and endowed by their creator with natural rights, Jefferson's original draft of the Declaration actually contained a passage condemning the King for supporting the British slave trade:
"He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating it's most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither.  This piratical warfare, the opprobrium of INFIDEL powers, is the warfare of the CHRISTIAN king of Great Britain.  Determined to keep open a market where MEN should be bought & sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce.  And that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them, by murdering the people on whom he also obtruded them: thus paying off former crimes committed against the LIBERTIES of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the LIVES of another" (Jefferson 1984, 22). 
Jefferson reports that this clause was struck out because some of the delegates from South Carolina and Georgia wanted to continue the foreign importation of slaves, and because some people in the northern colonies had engaged in the commercial shipping of slaves.

Notice that slaves are identified as "men," and thus entitled to the "rights of life and liberty" that belong to all men.  Notice also the reference to the "market where MEN should be bought & sold."  Since female as well as male slaves were sold on the market, this must imply that "men" is being used in a generic sense to include women as well as men.  If so, then the affirmation in the Declaration that "all men are created equal" must include slaves and women.

Enslaving human beings is said to be a "cruel war against human nature itself."  This appeal to human nature as the moral standard for natural rights appears often in Jefferson's writings, where one repeatedly finds language about "the rights of human nature" and the abolition of slavery as "a complete emancipation of human nature" (1972, 87; 1984, 116).

But since human nature shows great variation across human individuals and human racial groups, we might wonder whether that natural human variation denies any idea of natural human equality.  If some individuals and some races are naturally superior to others in their physical and mental capacities, then why doesn't that natural superiority give them a natural right to rule over those that are inferior?  If there really are natural slaves and natural masters, then why isn't there a natural law of slavery as being best both for the slaves and for the masters?

Beginning a few years after Jefferson's death in 1826, some proslavery Southerners began to argue that far from being a "cruel war against human nature itself," slavery could be according to nature if a naturally superior race enslaved a naturally inferior race, and such natural slavery could be a "positive good" for both slaves and masters.  After all, Aristotle had argued for there being natural slaves, and modern biological science seems to have confirmed that some races are naturally fitted for being enslaved, just as some ants naturally enslave other ants (Calhoun 1992, 467-69, 473-76; Cobb 1999, 8-52).

In his famous "Cornerstone Speech" of 1861, Alexander Stephens, the newly appointed Vice President of the Confederacy, rejected Jefferson's principle of natural equality--including the equality of races--as an error that had been refuted by modern science.  He declared that the Confederacy had a better foundation:
"Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests upon the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery--subordination to the superior race--is his natural and normal condition.  This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.  This truth has been slow in the process of its development, like all other truths in the various departments of science" (Stephens 2003, 91).
Although Stephens thought this new science of racial inequality denied Jefferson's teaching of equality, some of the proslavery thinkers found support for their position in some of Jefferson's writings--particularly Query 14 of Jefferson's Notes on the State of Virginia, where he studies the races as "subjects of natural history" and concludes with the "suspicion" that the blacks are "inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind."  A few years ago, when Paul Finkelman edited a collection of documents representing "proslavery thought in the Old South," he began his collection with some passages from Query 14 of the Notes on Virginia, which he described as Jefferson's "discussion of slavery in which he set out many of the arguments that Southerners would develop into a full blown proslavery defense in the first half of the nineteenth century" (Finkelman 2003, 47).

This is why Jean Yarbrough criticizes Jefferson for failing to see how his biological science or "natural history" of race in Query 14 of the Notes contradicts the self-evident truths of the Declaration.  She complains that Jefferson should have seen that the self-evident truths of the Declaration depend on axiomatic moral values that are incompatible with, and morally superior to, any scientific understanding of the natural facts of human nature.

Yarbrough says that the Declaration's "self-evident truths are those necessary principles which do not depend upon experience or scientific validation for their existence" (1991, 92).  "For once we know what a man is, i.e., a rational being with the capacity for moral action, it is self-evident that blacks are men.  Any attempt to prove or demonstrate this proposition would negate its self-evident character" (1991, 95).
"Underlying the Declaration's principles is the argument that, despite the evident intellectual, moral, and physical inequalities which Nature and Nature's God have scattered among human beings, all people are equal in the most decisive respect, namely, the possession of certain inalienable rights  For these rights are rooted in certain universal passions, which reason helps each individual to direct and secure.  Thus, no one may justly deprive another of these rights; nor may he rule over another without the other's consent" (1991, 95).
But then when Jefferson expresses  his "suspicion" that blacks are "inferior to whites in the endowments of both the body and the mind," Yarbrough says that "the self-evident moral propositions of the Declaration are seriously undermined" (1991, 98).  Here she contradicts herself.  If the self-evident truths "do not depend upon experience or scientific validation for their existence," then they cannot be undermined by any conclusions someone might infer about racial differences from experience or scientific study.  On the one hand, Yarbrough argues that the moral values of human equality of rights are axiomatic or necessary truths that have nothing to do with the empirical facts of human nature; and so that blacks are equal in their manhood is self-evident, because they satisfy the definition of manhood as having rationality with the capacity for moral action.  On the other hand, Yarbrough worries that any empirical claim that blacks are inferior in their capacities for reason and morality undermines the principle of human equality, because "scientific proof that blacks as a race are by nature intellectually inferior to whites might render their membership in the human community precarious" (1991, 103).

In The Federalist (number 31), Alexander Hamilton speaks about the self-evident axioms of Euclidean geometry--that "the whole is greater than its parts; things equal to the same are equal to one another; two straight lines cannot enclose a space; and all right angles are equal to each other."  So, that "all men are created equal" might be axiomatically true, in the sense that all men are equally men--a tautological truth.  Or we might say that men equal in their membership in the human species are equal to one another.

But then sorting animals into their species is an empirical question.  So, for example, following Linnaeus, Jefferson has to decide what traits separate the human species from the orangutans, who are close relatives of human beings.  If the distinctly human traits are rationality and moral emotions, then it's an empirical matter to identify the minimal levels of intellectual and moral capacity required for membership in the human species as the natural ground for human equality.

Due to their capacities for moral judgment and moral passions, human beings cannot properly be treated as domesticated animals or natural slaves adapted by their nature to serve their master's will, because insofar as human beings demand reciprocity in their social relations, they will never become mere extensions of a master's will.  Unlike domesticated animals, human slaves will judge the exploitative character of their enslavement, and their moral passions of resentment will motivate them to resist such exploitation.  Natural equality does not mean natural identity of capacities or achievements.  Natural human equality requires only an equality in those minimal moral dispositions that incline human beings to resist exploitation by other human beings and to demand a social order based on reciprocal and mutually beneficial exchange.

As the most dramatic expression of that moral resistance to exploitation, human slaves will run away from their masters or engage in violent insurrections.  One can see this in the history of the first slave societies, such as ancient Mesopotamia, which has been the subject of a previous post.

Jefferson saw this, because he indicated that even if it were shown that blacks were naturally inferior in the "endowments of the head," they were clearly well endowed in "the heart"--that is to say, in that "moral sense" of right and wrong that is as much a part of human nature as tasting and feeling (1972, 93, 143).  Although they are unequal in many respects, blacks are equal to whites in their moral sense, and thereby equal in their moral claim to their natural rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness (Wills 1978, 218-28).

It was commonly observed, however, that black slaves were utterly shameless in stealing from their masters; and many masters confessed that they took it for granted that a large portion of a plantation's production would be lost to theft by their slaves (Genovese 1976, 599-609).  Many slaveholders took this as evidence that the blacks lacked any sense of morality.  And yet Jefferson argued just the opposite:
"That disposition to theft with which they have been branded, must be ascribed to their situation, and not to any depravity of the moral sense.  The man, in whose favor no laws of property exist, probably feels himself less bound to respect those made in favor of others.  When arguing for ourselves, we lay it down as a fundamental, that laws, to be just, must give a reciprocation of right: that, without this, they are mesre arbitgrary rules of conduct, founded in force, and not in conscience; and it is a problem which I give to the master to solve, whether the religious precepts against the violation of propert y were not framed for him as well as his slave?  And whether the slave may not as justifiably take a little from one, who has taken all from him, as he may slay one who would slay him?" (1972, 142)
Jefferson added: "Notwithstanding these considerations, which must weaken their respect for the laws of property, we find among them numerous instances of the most rigid integrity, and as many as among their better instructed masters, of benevolence, gratitude, and unshaken fidelity" (1972, 142-43).

Far from showing their lack of a moral sense, slaves show the clarity of their moral judgment in taking the goods of their masters.  The slaveholders themselves recognizes that the laws of property, like any social norms that claim moral sanction, must allow "reciprocation of right."  Laws that deny reciprocity by promoting the interests of one group at the expense of another are grounded in force, not right.  The fundamental purpose of the laws of property is to enforce the rights and duties of reciprocal exchange.  Therefore, since the master deprives the slave of all property--even his self-ownership--the slave is justified by the moral logic of reciprocity in taking the master 's property whenever he can.

The precise moral logic of the slaves was evident in the fact that they distinguished between "taking" goods  from the master, which was permissible, and "stealing" goods from other slaves, which was prohibited.  They recognized the importance of respecting property rights among themselves as a condition of social order founded on reciprocity.  Yet they reasoned that if slaves were the absolute property of the master, as required by the logic of slavery, then slaves could not be properly said to "steal" from their masters.  After all, a slave who eats some of his master's corn is only transforming the master's property from one form to another, just as when a slave feeds the master's corn to the master's chickens (Genovese 1976, 602).

Thus, again, the slaves expose the contradiction of slavery in treating the slave as a mere extension of the master's will, which denies the humanity of the slave and thus also denies that the slave can have any moral duties towards the master.  The slaves show that they are not the inferior beings they are supposed to be; they do this by acting according to the principle of reciprocity as the foundation of human social life in which no human being can be the mere extension of another's will.

Although Jefferson correctly recognizes this as an expression of the human moral sense, he is mistaken, I believe, in regarding this as purely an act of the "heart" rather than the "head."  Certainly, the moral principle of reciprocity does rest upon passions or sentiments such as anger, indignation, and gratitude.  But still, reason prompts and directs those passions.  The subtle logic of the slaves in distinguishing "taking" from masters and "stealing" from other slaves, for example, manifests an intellectual capacity for moral judgment that is uniquely human.  So although all blacks do not have to be absolutely equal to all whites in their rational faculties to be equal in their moral sense, blacks must at least have that minimal ability for rationally judging principles such as reciprocity and for feeling the moral sentiments that enforce those principles.

If there were human beings--perhaps an entire race--that lacked that minimal level of rational and emotional capacity, so that they could not grasp the moral logic of principles like reciprocity, such people would be natural slaves.  Jefferson's argument seems to be that, with the possible exception of those who suffer from some abnormal mental disorder, all human beings have the minimal emotional and intellectual capacities that support a human moral sense.  Human beings recognize the exploitation in slavery as violating the moral principle of reciprocity, and in response to such exploitation, they feel moral passions such as anger and shame.

Jefferson repeated this thought in the last letter he wrote, only a few days before his death on July 4th, 1826, the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.  Speaking of the Declaration, he wrote:
"May it be to the world, what believe it will be, (to some parts sooner, to others later, but finally to all,) the signal of arousing men to burst the chains under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings land security of self-government.  That form which we have substituted, restores the free right to the unbounded exercise of reason and freedom of opinion. All eyes are opened, or opening, to the rights of man.  The general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view the palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God" (1984, 1517).
Using an image from Algernon Sydney's Discourses Concerning Government (1990, 511), Jefferson here indicates that human beings are not like those few species of animals that are naturally fitted for being domesticated by human beings for serving their human masters.  Although "monkish ignorance and superstition" have for long persuaded human beings that the great multitude of people are naturally born to serve a small ruling class, whose rule is favored "by the grace of God," now "the light of science" is opening the eyes of all to the scientific truth that human beings are not born to live as domesticated animals or natural slaves.

As already indicated, however, there was a long tradition of scientific racism in the nineteenth century that seemed to show that the "light of science" was actually proslavery.  Scientists such as Samuel Morton and Josiah Nott argued that measurements of the cranial sizes of human skulls showed that the white race had the largest brains of any racial group, thus explaining the superior intellectual and moral capacities of the white race.  Nott used this as evidence that the Caucasian and Negro races were actually two separate species (Morton 1839, 1844; Nott 1981).

Contrary to what is asserted by modern scholars like Boorstin and Yarbrough, abolitionists like Frederick Douglass did not believe that the moral values of human equality could be held to be true without any grounding in the scientific facts of human nature, because they recognized that if the racial science of Morton and Nott was valid, the argument against slavery would be weakened if not completely refuted.  Fundamental to the critique of slavery, Douglass believed, is the premise that "human rights stand upon a common basis . . . because all mankind have the same wants, arising out of a common nature."  This premise would be denied by the scientific claim that blacks and whites belong to separate species of unequal abilities.  Douglass observed: "Let it be once granted that the human race are of multitudinous origin, naturally different in their moral, physical, and intellectual capacities, and at once you make plausible a demand for classes, grades, and conditions, for different methods of culture, different moral, political, and religious institutions, and a chance is left for slavery, as a necessary institution" (1955, 2:295, 2:307).

Charles Darwin's evolutionary science confirmed Douglass's affirmation of the unity of the human species and Jefferson's account of the universal moral sense in a way that refuted the claims of scientific racism supporting slavery.  Adrian Desmond and James Moore have shown how Darwin's opposition to slavery influenced much of his thinking about human evolution in Darwin's Sacred Cause: How a Hatred of Slavery Shaped Darwin's Views on Human Evolution (2009).  I have written a post on their book.


Boorstin, Daniel. 1948. The Lost World of Thomas Jefferson. New York: Henry Holt.

Calhoun, John C. 1992. Union and Liberty: The Political Philosophy of John C. Calhoun. Ed. Ross M. Lence.  Indianapolis: Liberty Fund.

Cobb, Thomas R. R. 1999. An Inquiry into the Law of Negro Slavery in the United States of America. Introduction by Paul Finkelman. Athens: University of Georgia Press.

Douglass, Frederick. 1955. The Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass. 5 vols. Ed. Philip S. Foner. New York: International Publishers.

Jefferson, Thomas. 1972. Notes on the State of Virginia. Ed. William Peden. New York: Norton.

Jefferson, Thomas. 1984. Writings. Ed. Merrill D. Peterson. New York: The Library of America.

Morton, Samuel G. 1839. Crania Americana. Philadelphia: John Pennington.

Morton, Samuel G. 1844. Crania Aegyptian. Transactions of the American Philosophical Society 9:93-159.

Stephens, Alexander. 2003. "The Cornerstone Speech, 1861." In Defending Slavery: Proslavery Thought in the Old South, A Brief History with Documents. Ed. Paul Finkelman. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's.

Sidney, Algernon. 1990. Discourses Concerning Government. Ed. Thomas G. West. Indianapolis: Liberty Classics.

Wills, Garry. 1978. Inventing America: Jefferson's Declaration of Independence. New York: Doubleday.

Yarbrough, Jean. 1991. "Race and the Moral Foundation of the American Republic: Another Look at the Declaration and the Notes on Virginia." Journal of Politics 53: 90-105.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Jefferson, Hemings, and the Evolution of Racial Mixing

"A Philosophic Cock," 1804.  A Satirical Cartoon in a Federalist Newspaper of Jefferson's Relationship with Sally Hemings

A week ago, the Thomas Jefferson Foundation opened a new exhibit at Jefferson's Monticello plantation on Sally Hemings, Jefferson's slave who bore as many as six of his children over the last 40 years of his life.  The New York Times has a good article on this and also a good essay by Annette Gordon-Reed, who is one of the historians responsible for shifting scholarly opinion towards accepting Jefferson's fathering of Hemings' children.

That the principal author of the Declaration of Independence, who affirmed natural human equality and who denounced slavery as a violation of human nature, could not only own black slaves but also exploit them for his sexual gratification forces us to think about the human nature of slavery and the evolution of racial mixing.

Moreover, explaining the moral and political history of the Jefferson and Hemings relationship can illustrate the biopolitical science of political animals as moving through three levels of deep history--the universal history of the species, the cultural history of the group, and the individual history of animals within the group

In 1802, James Callender, a journalist with a grudge against Jefferson, published an article in a Richmond newspaper claiming that it was widely known in the neighborhood of Charlottesville that Jefferson had fathered several children with a slave woman named "Sally," and that these children bore a striking resemblance to Jefferson.  The Federalist opponents of Jefferson made this an issue in the presidential election of 1804.  Jefferson said nothing in public about this charge.  But some of his friends--including James Madison--dismissed it as preposterous, because it was contrary to the moral character that he had always displayed.

In 1853, however, Jefferson's friend John Hartwell Cocke wrote in his diary about "Mr. Jefferson's notorious example" as illustrating the shameful practice of slaveowners in Virginia fathering children with their slaves.

In the 1850s, Jefferson's grandson Thomas Jefferson Randolph spoke with the historian Henry S. Randall, telling him that Sally Hemings's children really did resemble his grandfather so closely that it was clear that the children had been fathered by someone in Jefferson's family.  But Randolph insisted that the father was Peter Carr, one of the sons of Jefferson's sister, who was notorious for his sexual connection with Sally Hemings.

In 1873, Sally Hemings's son Madison was interviewed by the editor of the Pike County Republican newspaper in Ohio.  He told the story of his ancestry as related to him by his mother.  He said that his grandmother (Elizabeth Hemings) had been fathered by an English sea captain, who had impregnated an African slave woman.  Elizabeth was owned by Virginian John Wayles, who took her as his concubine after the death of his wife.  He fathered Elizabeth's six children, one of whom was Sally Hemings.  One of Wayles' children by his wife was Martha, Thomas Jefferson's wife.  When Wayles died, Martha inherited his land and his slaves, including Sally Hemings, who was Martha's half-sister.

Martha died in 1782, and Jefferson promised her on her death bed that he would never remarry.  She had had six children, but only two daughters survived into adulthood--Martha and Maria.

In 1784, Jefferson was appointed a minister plenipotentiary to join John Adams and Benjamin Franklin in Europe to negotiate treaties.  In 1785, he was appointed to succeed Franklin as minister to France.  While in Paris, he was known for his flirtatious dalliances with married women, particularly Maria Cosway.

In 1787, the fourteen-year-old Sally Hemings accompanied the nine-year-old Maria Jefferson to Paris.  According to the accounts of slaves on the plantation and Jefferson's grandson, Sally was nearly white in appearance and so beautiful that she was known as "Dashing Sally."  According to Madison Hemmings's report, Sally in Paris became "Mr. Jefferson's concubine."  At this time, "concubine" was the term for a woman in an enduring sexual liaison with a man without being legally married to him.

In 1789, Jefferson was called back to the United States to become Secretary of State in President Washington's first administration.  Madison said that when Jefferson asked Sally to return home with him, she demurred, because she had learned enough French to know that French law would permit her to be free if she remained in France, while in Virginia she would be a slave.  Jefferson promised that if she returned with him, he would give her special privileges for the rest of her life, and her children would be freed at the age of 21.  Hemings trusted him to keep his word.  Jefferson was 46 years old.  Hemings was 16.

And, indeed, according to what Madison called "the treaty" between his mother and Jefferson, all four of the Hemings children who lived to adulthood--three sons (Beverly, Madison, and Eston) and one daughter (Harriet)--became free at adulthood.  All of the children worked in Jefferson's home and were free from any field work.  All of them married and raised children.  Beverly became identified as a white man, and he married a white woman.  Harriet became identified as a white woman and married a white man.  Eston lived as a white man who married a black woman.  Madison remained in the black community, and he married a fair skinned black woman.  After Jefferson's death in 1826, his slaves were sold, but Sally left the plantation and became a free woman, living with two of her children until her death in 1835.

It is not clear whether Hemings's sexual submission to Jefferson was romantic or coerced or perhaps some complex mixture of both.  At the new Monticello exhibit, some of the written displays use the word "rape?" with a question mark to convey this uncertainty about the character of their sexual relationship.

A few months after Madison Hemings's interview in 1873 with the Pike County Republican, Israel Jefferson, a former slave of Jefferson's and a friend of Hemings, gave his own interview to that newspaper confirming Hemings's story about his mother being Jefferson's concubine.

Until recently, however, historians have generally dismissed as unreliable all of the reports of Jefferson fathering children by Hemings.  Many historians have accepted the claim of Thomas Jefferson Randolph that the resemblance of Hemings's children to Jefferson could be explained by their being fathered by one of the Carr brothers.  Historians could not believe that a man with the moral character of Thomas Jefferson could have engaged in such reprehensible conduct in secret for almost 40 years.

In 1968, Winthrop Jordan, in his book White Over Black, noted that Jefferson's plantation account books showed that Jefferson had been at Monticello at every time when Sally Hemings conceived a child (Jordan 1968, 1999).  Later, it was shown that Hemings tended to get pregnant within one month after Jefferson's arrival at Monticello (Neiman 2000).

In 1974, Fawn Brodie published her best-selling popular book Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History, which argued for a Freudian explanation of Jefferson's sexual activity with Hemings.  But some of Brodie's reasoning turned on speculative scenarios with little supporting evidence.

Finally, in 1997, the intellectual tide among historians began to turn towards accepting the story of Hemings as Jefferson's concubine because of the influence of Annette Gordon-Reed's book Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy.  A historian with a law degree, she conceded that there was no "definitive proof" for this conclusion, but then she presented a carefully crafted legal brief claiming that the preponderance of the evidence favored it.

She summarized the evidence as eight items supporting the assertion that Thomas Jefferson fathered Sally Hemings's children .

1. Madison Hemings Claim to Be the Son of Thomas Jefferson.
Against the argument of historians that the abolitionist editor of the Pike County Republican (S. F. Wetmore) prompted Madison Hemings in 1873 to falsely claim to be the son of Jefferson, Gordon-Reed pointed out that as early as the 1840s there were newspaper reports about Madison and his brother Eston being the children of Jefferson.  Moreover, much of what Madison Hemings said in his interview with Wetmore has been confirmed by and fits with other evidence.

2. Israel Jefferson's Corroboration of Madison Hemings's Statement.

3. John Hartwell Cocke's Statement That Jefferson Had a Slave Mistress.
John Hartwell Cocke served with Jefferson on the Board of Visitors of the University of Virginia.  Cocke saw Jefferson's taking a slave concubine as manifesting an unwritten social code of conduct among slaveholders, who informally agreed that this practice would not damage one's public reputation as long as the slave master did not live openly with his slave concubines.  Historians have confirmed that this was in fact a widespread cultural norm (Morgan 1999; Rothman 1999).

4. James Callender's Assertion Corroborating Madison Hemings's Statement.

5. Hemings's Conceptions and Jefferson's Proximity.
This is one of the strongest pieces of evidence--that Hemings never conceived a child when Jefferson was not in residence at Monticello, although he was often away from Monticello for six to eight months at a time.  It is hard to understand how the Carr brothers failed to father any children during these long periods when Jefferson was absent from Monticello.

6. The Resemblance of Sally Hemings's Children to Thomas Jefferson..
Remarkably, while Thomas Jefferson Randolph was trying to deny Thomas Jefferson's paternity of Hemings's children, he admitted that they all looked much like him.  If we accept this, then it is unlikely that Hemings's children were fathered by any of the white men who visited Monticello, because Randolph's claims about resemblance to Jefferson reduced the possible fathers to three men: Thomas Jefferson, Peter Carr, and Samuel Carr.

7. The Treatment of Sally Hemings's Children.
The best evidence for Madison Hemmings's report of a "treaty" that Sally Hemings negotiated with Jefferson as her condition for agreeing to become his concubine in Virginia is what happened to her children.  All four of her children were allowed to leave Monticello as free adults after they turned 21.  Jefferson freed no other slave in this way.  The very few that he freed were older men that had performed special services for him.  Harriet Hemings was the only female that he ever freed.  The treatment of the Hemings's children was also special in that they were all assigned private baby-sitters.  The records also show that all three of Hemings's sons were taught to play the violin--the instrument favored by Jefferson himself.

8. The Freeing of Sally Hemings.
After the death of Jefferson, his slaves were sold, but Sally Hemings was allowed to go free and to live with her sons Madison and Eston.  Jefferson's will did not specify this, which is understandable if he did not want to provide public written evidence for his special treatment of her.

The ninth piece of evidence--and perhaps the most dramatic form of evidence--came a year after the publication of Gordon-Reed's book.  In 1998, a genetic analysis published in Nature showed that there was a DNA match on the Y chromosome between a living male-line descendent of Eston Hemings and male-line descendants of Field Jefferson, a paternal uncle of Thomas Jefferson (Foster et al. 1998; Foster et al. 1999; Lander and Ellis 1998).  The researchers had to look at the male-line descendants of Field Jefferson, because Thomas Jefferson had no sons who lived to adulthood, and thus he left no male descendants.

Most  of the Y chromosome is passed intact from father to son.  But there are small regions of DNA that vary among individuals, so that Y chromosomes can be distinguished by the haplotype (the set of specific variants) that they carry.  The authors of this study found a rare haplotype in the Y chromosome of the descendants of Jefferson's paternal grandfather that matched that of Eston Hemings's descendant.

This was widely reported as conclusive proof that Thomas Jefferson was the father of Sally Hemings's children.  But as the authors of the report indicated, they could not completely rule out the possibility that some male-line descendant of Field Jefferson other than Thomas Jefferson fathered an ancestor of the presumed male-line descendant of Eston Hemings.  The men of Randolph Jefferson's family could have fathered Sally Hemings's children.  But the researchers believed the historical evidence made this possibility unlikely.

In 2000, the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation--the owner of Jefferson's home at Monticello--issues a report concluding that Jefferson fathered at least one and perhaps all of Sally Hemings's children.

But then some scholars rejected this as an unfair and unproven assault on the moral reputation of Thomas Jefferson as one of the greatest of America's Founding Fathers.  A group of these scholars formed the Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society, which set up a Scholars Commission of senior scholars to reexamine all the evidence for and against Jefferson's paternity of Hemings's children.  There were 13 members of the Commission: Lance Banning, James Ceaser, Robert H. Ferrell, Charles Kesler, Harvey C. Mansfield, Alf J. Mapp, Jr., David N. Mayer, Forrest McDonald, Paul A. Rahe, Thomas Traut, Robert F. Turner, Walter E. Williams, and Jean Yarbrough.  They issued their report in 2001, and it was published as a book in 2011 (Turner 2011).

The majority of the Scholars Commission--12 of the 13 members--concluded that that the allegation that Thomas Jefferson fathered Sally Hemings's children was by no means proven and probably false. The one dissenting member--Paul Rahe--agreed that this allegation was not decisively proven, but he dissented in "believing it somewhat more likely than not that Thomas Jefferson was the father of Eston Hemings."  He was particularly impressed by two lines of evidence--first, the correlation between the beginning of Sally Hemings's pregnancies and Thomas Jefferson's times of residence at Monticello, and, second, the DNA evidence that Eston was fathered by a direct male descendant of Jefferson's grandfather.

How one weighs the evidence in this case, Rahe observed, depends a lot on what one thinks about Jefferson's moral character.  Those scholars who find the story of Jefferson taking Hemings as his slave concubine incredible think this contradicts the moral character that he displayed throughout life. But those like Rahe who see evidence that Jefferson was unusually vain, deceitful, self-deceptive, and hypocritical are more inclined to see the story as credible.

After all, Rahe pointed out, we know for sure that even if Jefferson did not himself abuse his power as slaveholder over Sally Hemings, he allowed one or more members of his extended family to exercise abusive power over Hemings.

"In his private, as in his public, life," Rahe said, "there was, for all his brilliance and sagacity, something dishonest, something self-serving and self-indulgent about the man" (2011, 352).

I agree with Rahe.

Consider now how any explanation of this Jefferson-Hemings affair must move through the three levels of biopolitical science.  At the level of the universal history of the species, we have to explain the evolved psychology of human nature that supports male dominance hierarchies, the expression of dominance in enslavement, and the resistance of slaves to exploitative mastery.

In his original draft of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson recognized that slavery was ultimately a "cruel war against human nature itself."  And in the Notes on the State of Virginia, he warned that "the whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other," and he saw that "the man must be a prodigy who can retain his manners and morals undepraved by such circumstances" (Jefferson 1982, Query XVIII, p. 162).  It appears that Jefferson was not such a prodigy.

At the level of the cultural history of the group, we can explain Jefferson's use of Hemings as his concubine, but without public acknowledgment, as his adoption of an informal social norm that arose in the culture of Virginia's slave society.  But in the Declaration of Independence and in other writings where Jefferson denounced slavery as unjust in violating the principles of natural right, we can see the cultural symbolism of Lockean liberal ideas and how those ideas contradict Jefferson's practice of slaveholding.

Finally, at  the level of the individual history of animals in the group, we have to judge Jefferson's personal character and his individual moral and political judgments.  Before Jefferson left for Europe in 1784, he consistently proposed plans for the gradual emancipation of slaves.  Yet when he returned to the United States in 1789, he continued to declare slavery a great injustice, but he never again proposed any plans for emancipation.  Scholars have wondered how to explain this change of mind.  Did it have something to do with Hemings's concubinage?  And if so, can we condemn him for his hypocrisy and deceit?

Jefferson's hypocrisy is most evident when he warns that if the American slaves are emancipated, they must be expelled from the country so that they are "removed beyond the reach of mixture" (Jefferson 1972, Query XIV, p. 143).  He worried about the "degradation" coming from the "amalgamation" of races (Jefferson 1984, 1345).  Alexander Hamilton criticized Jefferson for these comments, pointing out the high incidence of race mixing in slave societies because of slave masters making concubines of their slaves.


Brodie, Fawn. 1974. Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History.  New York: Norton.

Foster, Eugene A., M. A. Jobling, P. G. Taylor, P. Donnelly, P. de Knijff, Rene Mieremet, T. Zerjal, and C. Tyler-Smith. 1998. "Jefferson Fathered Slave's Last Child." Nature 396: 27-28.

Foster, Eugene A., et al. 1999. "The Thomas Jefferson Paternity Case." Nature 397: 32.

Gordon-Reed, Annette. 1997. Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press.

Gordon-Reed, Annette. 2008. The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family.  New York: Norton.

Gordon-Reed, Annette. 2018. "Sally Hemings Takes Center Stage."  The New York Times. June 15.

Jefferson, Thomas. 1972. Notes on the State of Virginia. Ed. William Peden. New York: Norton.

Jefferson, Thomas 1984. Writings. Ed. Merrill D. Peterson. New York: The Library of America.

Lander, Eric S., and Joseph J. Ellis. 1998. "Founding Father." Nature 396: 13-14.

Morgan, Philip D. 1999. "Interracial Sex in the Chesapeake and the British Atlantic World, c. 1700-1820." In Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson: History, Memory, and Civic Culture, eds. Jan Ellen Lewis and Peter S. Onuf, pp. 52-84. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press.

Neiman, Fraser D. 2000. "Coincidence or Causal Connection? The Relationship between Thomas Jefferson's Visits to Monticello and Sally Hemings's Conceptions."  The William & Mary Quarterly 57: 198-210.

Rahe, Paul. 2011. "Minority Views of Professor Paul A. Rahe." In The Jefferson-Hemings Controversy: Report of the Scholars Commission, ed. Robert F. Turner, pp. 345-52. Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press.

Rothman, Joshua D.  1999. "James Callender and Social Knowledge of Interracial Sex in Antebellum America." In Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson, 87-113.

Stockman, Farah. 2018. "Monticello Is Done Avoiding Jefferson's Relationship With Sally Hemings.:" The New York Times. June 16.

Turner, Robert F., ed.  2011. The Jefferson-Hemings Controversy: Report of the Scholars Commission. Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Evolution by Hybridization of a New Species of Galapagos Finches from a Founding Father

                                                     The Big Bird Finch of the Galapagos

Last year, in one of my posts on my second tour of the Galapagos Islands, I wrote about the evolution of new species through hybridization, including the report from Peter and Rosemary Grant that there might be a new species of finch on the island of Daphne Major arising from hybridization, although they had not yet said that this really was a new species.

Recently, the Grants have published their claim that this is indeed a new species that has evolved through hybridization (Lamichhaney et al. 2018; Wagner 2018).  In 1981, a male large cactus finch (Geospiza conirostris) arrived on Daphne Major, having immigrated a long distance (over 100 km) from the island of Espanola, the only island where this species is found.  They called him "Big Bird" because of his unusually large head.

Big Bird mated with a medium ground finch (G. fortis).  This pair produced offspring, and with only one exception, the offspring found mates descended from the original pair, thus breeding within the hybrid lineage, for over 30 years.  Because of their larger body size, they are called Big Birds.  So, as with the biblical story of Adam and Eve, we have a new species derived from a founding pair of mates.

Large cactus finches learn the distinctive song of their species by listening to their fathers sing, which is thus passed down through a culturally learned tradition.  The first Big Bird--the founding father--sang a unique song, slightly different from the song sang by male large cactus finches on Espanola.  This is the song now sung by male Big Birds, and it contributes to their reproductive isolation.

Another cue for reproductive isolation is that the size of the Big Birds' bill is intermediate between the bill sizes for the other species, which is probably a consequence of natural selection favoring a bill morphology adapted for feeding on certain kinds of seeds on Daphne Major.

Genetic analysis has confirmed that the Big Birds are a distinctive species separate from the other 18 species of finches on the Galapagos Islands.

Notice the historical contingency in this scientific study.  The rare and chance event of one individual bird with a unique song immigrating to Daphne Major and mating with a female of a different species, in the unique circumstances of that island at a particular historical moment, became a founding event for the evolution of a new species.

This illustrates the historical character of biology as the study of unique individuals with unique life histories and cultural traditions.  It is not true, therefore, that human beings are the only animals who have individual and cultural histories.  A biopolitical science of political animals must include the study of the individual personalities and the social history of those animals.  (I have written about this here, and here.)

My next post will be devoted to another kind of hybrid breeding by a founding father--Thomas Jefferson's interracial breeding with his slave Sally Hemings.


Lamichhaney, Sangeet, Fan Han, Matthew T. Webster, Leif Andersson, B. Rosemary Grant, and Peter R. Grant. 2018. "Rapid Hybrid Speciation in Darwin's Finches." Science 359 (12 January): 224-228.

Wagner, Catherine E. 2018. "Improbable Big Birds." Science 359 (12 January): 157-159.

Saturday, June 16, 2018

The "Supreme Judge" and "Divine Providence" in the Declaration of Independence

There are four references to a deity in the Declaration of Independence.  At the beginning of the document, the first two references are to "the laws of Nature and of Nature's God" and to the "Creator."  Then, at the end, in the penultimate sentence, there is a third reference in the formal declaration of independence: "We, therefore, the representatives of the United States of America, in General Congress, assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the name, and by the authority of the good people of these colonies, solemnly publish and declare, that these united colonies are, and of right ought to be free and independent states."  The final reference is in the last sentence: "And for the support of this declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor."

Thus, God's government of the world has three branches: the legislative (the laws of Nature's God), the executive (Creator and Providence), and the judicial (Supreme Judge).

"Appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions" suggests the need for divine judgment as a sanction for law and morality.  Does human law and morality require belief in divine rewards and punishments?  Does that belief include a belief in the immortality of the soul in an afterlife where God can mete out eternal rewards in Heaven and eternal punishments in Hell?  And if so, does a Darwinian science of human evolution support or subvert those religious beliefs?

And if we must appeal to the Supreme Judge, how does He promulgate His judgments?  If the Supreme Judge is Nature's God, then we might have to rely on our human rational understanding of nature, in which case we would not need any supernatural revelation.

But if nature is not enough, and we do need some special revelation of God's supernatural message, we might look to the Bible, although the Declaration never refers to the Bible or any other holy book. So, for example, recently Attorney General Jeff Sessions has quoted from the Bible as supporting the controversial policy of the Trump administration for taking children away from parents who have entered the United States illegally.  Many Christians, including evangelical Christians who have supported Trump, have denounced this policy as immoral.  Sessions quoted from the thirteenth chapter of Romans where Paul apparently declares that the powers of government are ordained by God, and thus Christians have a duty to obey the government: "Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers.  For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God.  Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation" (Romans 13:1-2).  Since this policy of taking children away from parents who have crossed the borders illegally is a legal order of the government, Sessions indicates, those who resist this policy are resisting an ordinance of God, and they will be punished with damnation.

In response to Sessions, some Christians have pointed out that this same thirteenth chapter of Romans commands "Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself" (13:9), and kidnapping children seems contrary to this commandment.

Some Christians have also pointed out that the 13th chapter of Romans was quoted by proslavery Christians to support obedience to the laws enforcing slavery.  In Slavery Ordained of God (1857J), the Reverend Fred Ross, a prominent Presbyterian minister in Alabama, cited Romans 13 and many other biblical teachings as supporting slavery.  Moreover, he argued, Romans 13 shows that the Declaration of Independence is a work of infidelity contrary to God's revelation in the Bible, because if government is ordained of God, then it is wrong to teach that government's authority comes from the consent of the people.  I will say more about Ross's argument in a future post on slavery and the Declaration.

This indicates the problem in appealing to the divine revelation of the Bible as a guide to the judgments of the Supreme Judge:  we often cannot agree on how to interpret the Bible and how to apply it to our lives.  As with any book, the language of the Bible is open to conflicting interpretations, as manifest in the history of Judaism and Christianity.  The American founders certainly saw this problem.  In The Federalist (no. 37), James Madison observed: "When the Almighty himself condescends to address mankind in their own language, his meaning, luminous as it must be, is rendered dim and doubtful by the cloudy medium through which it is communicated."

Nevertheless, many of the American colonists settling in the New World in the seventeenth century thought the legal language of the Bible was clear enough to incorporate the Mosaic laws of the Old Testament into their colonial constitutions.  For example, the "Laws and Liberties of Massachusetts" of 1647 functioned as a constitution for Massachusetts, and it included many Mosaic laws in addition to English common law and what was considered natural law.  Part of this was a legally established Church that could punish heretics and infidels (Lutz, 1998, 95-135).

After the Declaration of Independence, however, those framing new state constitutions and the Articles of Confederation relied hardly at all on the divinely revealed laws of the Bible.  In his Defense of the Constitutions of the United States of America (1786-1787), John Adams explained: "The United States of America have exhibited, perhaps, the first example of governments erected on the simple principles of nature; and if men are now sufficiently enlightened to disabuse themselves of artifice, imposture, hypocrisy, and superstition, they will consider this event as an era in their history."  Those who formed these new American governments did not claim "interviews with the gods" or "the inspiration of Heaven."  These thirteen governments were contrived "merely by the use of reason and the senses," and founded "on the natural authority of the people alone, without a pretense of miracle or mystery."  This experiment has succeeded so well, Adams concluded, that "it can no longer be called in question, whether authority in magistrates and obedience of citizens can be grounded on reason, morality, and the Christian religion, without the monkery of priests, or the knavery of politicians" (Adams, 2000, 117-19).

But notice that even as Adams scorns the pretense of grounding governmental authority on "the monkery of priests" who might claim "interviews with the gods," he still appeals to "the Christian religion" as important for enforcing political authority and obedience to the laws.  So if it doesn't mean legally enforcing the Mosaic laws and a politically established Church, what does it mean for government to be grounded on "the Christian religion"?

In an often-quoted passage of George Washington's Farewell Address, Washington insisted that religion was necessary for popular morality:
"And let us indulge with caution the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion.  Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle."
And yet we can't help noticing that while stressing the importance of religion for the "national morality" of most people, Washington suggests that a few people with "minds of peculiar structure" don't need religion for their moral education.

Similarly, while Thomas Jefferson thought the Christian religion could support morality, religious belief was not absolutely necessary for moral conduct, because there was a natural moral sense inherent in human nature that could be known by natural human experience even without religious belief.   In a letter to Peter Carr (August 10, 1787), Jefferson laid out a plan of education for him, including the study of moral philosophy and religion.  He advised:
"Do not be frightened from this inquiry by any fear of it's consequences.  If it ends in a belief that there is no god, you will find incitements to virtue in the comfort & pleasantness you feel in it's exercise, and the love of others which it will procure you.  If you find reason to believe there is a god, a consciousness that you are acting under his eye, & that he approves you, will be a vast additional incitement; if that there be a future state, the hope of a happy existence in that increases the appetite to deserve it" (Jefferson 1984, 903).
Jefferson refused to speak in public about his religious beliefs, because he insisted that religion was a private matter of conscience between oneself and God, and that freedom of conscience meant that no one should be forced into a public confession of one's faith or lack of faith.  Even in the presidential election of 1800, when ministers sermonized against him as an infidel or atheist, Jefferson refused to respond to this charge in public.

In private, however, in conversations and correspondence with his friends, he professed to believe in the purely moral teachings of Jesus, once they were cleansed of the corruptions coming from Platonic Christianity.  He thought that Jesus taught "the principles of pure deism."  "To the corruptions of Christianity I am indeed opposed; but not to the genuine precepts of Jesus himself. I am a Christian, in the only sense he wished any one to be; sincerely attached to his doctrines, in preference to all others; ascribing to himself every human excellence; & believing he never claimed any other" (letter to Benjamin Rush, April 21, 1803).  In the same letter where he identified himself as an Epicurean, Jefferson also identified Jesus as a "benevolent moralist," whose moral teaching needed to be rescued from the "artificial systems" of Christian sects, which included "the immaculate conception of Jesus, his deification, the creation of the world by him, his miraculous powers, his resurrection and visible ascension, his corporeal presence in the Eucharist, the Trinity; original sin, atonement, regeneration, election, orders of Hierarchy, etc." (letter to William Short, October 31, 1819).  In other words, the corruptions of true Christianity included most of the fundamental doctrines of orthodox Christianity!

Jefferson's account of the moral teaching of Jesus striped of all the "artificial systems" looks like what Spinoza identified as "the dogmas of universal faith"--"that there exists a supreme being who loves justice and charity, and that, to be saved, all people must obey and venerate Him by practicing justice and charity towards their neighbor . . . or love of one's neighbor" (Theological-Political Treatise, 14.10).

To extract this pure moral teaching of Jesus from the Bible, Jefferson prepared his own revised version of the Bible.  He went through some Greek, Latin, French, and English translations of the Bible; he read the four gospels--Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John--and cut out those passages that represented the true life and teachings of Jesus; and he then pasted these excerpts on pages with four columns so that the Greek, Latin, French, and English texts were parallel.  He arranged them in the chronological order of the life of Jesus from birth to death.  He cut out all the references to miracles--including the incarnation of Jesus as the Son of God, the resurrection of the crucified Jesus, the water being turned into wine, the multitudes being fed on five loaves of bread and two fishes, and so on.  He gave it the title of The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth Extracted Textually from the Gospels in Greek, Latin, French & English.  He kept this for his private use.  It was never seen outside his family until it was sold to the Smithsonian Institution in 1895.  It was later published under the title Jefferson's Bible.  In 2011, the Smithsonian Institution published a beautiful facsimile edition of the original book.

Like Jefferson and the other deists among the American founders, Charles Darwin found it hard to believe in the miracles of the Bible: "the more we know of the fixed laws of nature, the more incredible do miracles become."  He finally concluded that the Bible could not be a divine revelation. And yet he saw "the morality of the New Testament" as "beautiful" (Autobiography, 86).  In particular, he quoted Jesus' statement of the golden rule--"As ye would that men should do to you, do ye to them likewise" (Matthew 7:12)--as "the foundation of morality" (Descent of Man, 151).

Darwin thought that "the conviction of the existence of an all-seeing Deity has had a potent influence on the advance of morality," although the idea of "a universal and beneficent Creator" was not instinctive but arose only at the end of a long history of cultural evolution (Descent, 682).

Darwin believed that morality could be explained as rooted in the natural evolution of a moral sense or the moral sentiments, as understood by David Hume and Adam Smith.  "Any animal whatever, endowed with well-marked social instincts, the parental and filial affections being here included, would inevitably acquire a moral sense or conscience, as soon as its intellectual powers had become as well, or nearly as well developed, as in man" (Descent, 121).  "Ultimately our moral sense or conscience becomes a highly complex sentiment--originating in the social instincts, largely guided by the approbation of our fellow-men, ruled by reason, self-interest, and in later times by deep religious feelings, and confirmed by instruction and habit" (Descent, 157).

For this moral sense, Darwin believed, the "reverence or fear of the Gods or Spirits" is "most important, although not necessary."  For example, we can reject the belief that "the abhorrence of incest is due to our possessing a special God-implanted conscience," because we can explain the incest taboo as rooted in an evolved instinctive disgust towards sexual mating with close relatives (Descent, 138-39, 688; Variation of Animals and Plants, 2:104).

Darwin's evolutionary theory of morality has been deepened and confirmed by recent research in the evolutionary psychology of morality by those like Edward Wilson, Jonathan Haidt, and Joshua Greene.  (I have written about this herehere, and here.)

The importance of religious belief in moralistic "Big Gods" for the enforcement of morality in large agrarian states has been shown by Ara Norenzayan and his colleagues.  But they have also shown that with moral progress in cultural evolution, it is now possible in modern societies for people to be moral without religion--or good without God--although there is still some culturally evolved popular suspicion of atheists as less moral than religious believers.  (I have written about this here and here.)


Adams, John. 2000. The Political Writings of John Adams. Ed. George W. Carey. Washington, DC: Regnery Publishing.

Darwin, Charles. 1959. The Autobiography of Charles Darwin, 1809-1882. Ed. Nora Barlow. New York: W. W. Norton.

Darwin, Charles. 1998. The Variation of Animals and Plants Under Domestication. 2 vols. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Darwin, Charles. 2004. The Descent of Man. New York: Penguin Classics.

Jefferson, Thomas. 1984. Writings. Ed. Merrill D. Peterson. New York: Library of America.

Jefferson, Thomas. 2011. The Jefferson Bible: The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth Extracted Textually from the Gospels in Greek, Latin, French & English. With essays by Harry R. Rubenstein, Barbara Clark Smith & Janice Stagnitto Ellis. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Books.

Lutz, Donald, ed. 1998. Colonial Origins of the American Constitution: A Documentary History. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund.

Ross, Fred. 1857. Slavery Ordained of God. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott.

Spinoza, Benedict de. 2016. Collected Works of Spinoza. Ed. & trans. Edwin Curley. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

The Darwinian Science of the Creator in the Declaration of Independence

Here is the beginning of the second sentence in Thomas Jefferson's first draft of the Declaration of Independence:  "We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal and independent; that from that equal creation they derive rights inherent and inalienable."

Here is that same passage as it appears in the final version: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights."

Although the first version conveys the idea of human beings as created equal and deriving rights from that equal creation, the addition of "by their Creator" in the final version makes it clearer that the agent of creation is the divine Creator.

Here is the last sentence in the first edition of Charles Darwin's Origin of Species published in 1859: "There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved."

In the second edition of this book, Darwin added the phrase "by the Creator" after the word "breathed."  Darwin's language here about creation through "breathing" echoes the language of the King James translation of Genesis 2:7--"And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul."  As in the revision of the Declaration, Darwin's addition of "the Creator" makes the implication clear that there's a divine agent at work in the origin of life.

In the Biblical story of Creation, there seems to be something special about God's creation of human beings, and that human specialness is emphasized by the Bible's declaration that "God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them" (Genesis 1:27).  There is also a suggestion of human specialness in the Declaration's claim that human beings are endowed by their Creator with rights.

In Darwin's text, however, the powers of life were originally breathed by the Creator "into a few forms or into one," implying that human beings were not specially created but rather evolved from lower forms of life.  And, in fact, Darwin explicitly rejects the "theory of special creation"--the theory that the Creator had to miraculously create each species of life separately--in affirming "the theory of natural selection"--Darwin's theory that all living species of life have naturally evolved over millions of years from one or a few primordial forms of life.

The exact dating of creation is not clear either in the Bible or in the Declaration.  "In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth" (Genesis 1:1).  But Genesis does not give us a date for "the beginning." God's acts of creation are said to be spread out over six days, and yet it's not clear whether these are meant to be literal 24-hour days.  In the seventeenth century, Bishop James Ussher tried to calculate the chronology of Biblical history, and he estimated that the "beginning" of creation was 4,004 years before the birth of Christ; so that the whole world was no older than 6,000 years.  But the Bible does not clearly state this.  And the Declaration takes no position on this dating.

Although it was impossible for Darwin to date the history of life precisely, he saw that the natural evolution of all forms of life would require at least hundreds of millions of years.  One of the achievements of geology in the first half of the nineteenth century was reaching a general agreement that the Earth was surely much older than 6,000 years.  Nevertheless, by the beginning of the twentieth centuries, there were some "young-Earth creationists" who defended Ussher's dating, although the "old-Earth creationists" were willing to concede that the geological evidence was against Ussher, and that the "days" of creation in Genesis should be interpreted as "ages" much longer than 24 hours.  William Jennings Bryan, for example, was an old-Earth creationist.

So is the Darwinian science of human evolution compatible with what the Declaration says about the creation of human beings by the Creator?  Well, it depends on what one means by "creation" and "the Creator."  As I have already indicated, there are different kinds of creationism, and while some kinds clearly contradict Darwin's science, some do not--as suggested by Darwin himself in his reference to "the Creator."  A Creator whose creative activity is always against the laws of nature denies Darwin's science.  But a Creator whose creative activity works through the laws of nature--who acts as Nature's God--is compatible with Darwin's science.

There are five kinds of creationism--young-Earth creationism, old-Earth creationism, intelligent-design creationism, evolutionary creationism, and Spinozistic creationism.  Spinozistic creationism is completely compatible with Darwinian science, and evolutionary creationism is largely so.  (I have written about the different kinds of creationism herehere, here, here, here, and here.)

Most scientific creationists today concede that Darwin refuted the "theory of special creation"--the idea that the Creator had to miraculously create every plant and animal species separately.  The Bible speaks of God as creating the "kinds" of life, but these "kinds" are not necessarily all the "species" of life.  Some creation scientists claim that "created kinds" correspond not to "species" but to groups of plants or animals at a taxonomic level higher than species, perhaps at or near the taxonomic rank of family.  So, for example, Todd Wood concedes that Peter and Rosemary Grant have presented convincing evidence for the evolution of diverse species of "Darwin's finches" on the Galapagos Islands as adaptations to the environment of the Galapagos.  But still, Wood argues, all of these species of finches belong to a single "kind" created by God.

Wood also concedes that the human species might have evolved from ancestral primate species, so that human beings and apes might belong to some "kind" that was originally created by God with the genetic potential for evolving into all of the primate species.

Unlike the young-Earth creationists (like Wood), the old-Earth creationists (like Hugh Ross) concede that the universe is billions of years old, and so Ussher's dating of 6,000 years is false.  But over those billions of years of cosmic history, Ross argues, God had to miraculously intervene at critical points for supernatural creative activity that cannot be reduced to natural evolution.

The evolutionary creationists (or theistic evolutionists) like Francis Collins and Deborah Haarsma believe that God could have acted as First Cause in originally creating the general laws of nature, but then He could have allowed natural evolutionary history to unfold just as evolutionary scientists have explained it, without any need for God to miraculously disrupt the natural order of things.

This is the idea of the metaphysics of dual causality that Darwin introduces in the Origin of Species: God's establishment of general laws constitutes the primary causes of the universe, while the natural scientist studies the secondary causes that govern the observable world. (I have written about this herehere, and here.)

The signers of the Declaration of Independence were familiar with a similar conception of dual causality in Isaac Newton's version of deistic religion.  The universe is a "machine" governed by the mathematical laws of nature.  But God is the "Maker" of the machine.

This Newtonian conception of the "clockmaker God" creates a dilemma, however, for anyone who wants to see God as a transcendent being beyond the immanent order of nature.  As Gottfried Leibniz pointed out in his debate with Samuel Clark, either God must intervene regularly to rewind or repair the clock, which shows that God is an incompetent clockmaker; or the clock works fine all by itself, and God the clockmaker is indistinguishable from God the clock.  If it's the latter, then Newton's God is Spinoza's God, who is the same as Nature.

In one of the most influential statements of Lockean political philosophy in the eighteenth century--Cato's Letters--John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon resolved this debate in favor of Spinoza.  In their essay on how to dispel "superstitious fears" by recognizing that what appear to be miraculous events are probably works of natural causes, they argue:
"The works of Almighty God are as infinite as is his power to do them.  And 'tis paying greater deference to him, and having higher conceptions of his omnipotence, to suppose that he  saw all things which have been, are, or ever shall be, at one view, and formed the whole system of nature with such exquisite contrivance and infinite wisdom, as by its own energy and intrinsick power, to promote all the effects and operations which we daily see, feel, and admire; than to believe him to be often interposing to alter and amend his own work, which was undoubtedly perfect at first" (no. 77, Liberty Fund edition, 2:565).
This same Spinozistic idea of identifying God and Nature was adopted by Darwin.  After reading one of the first copies of The Origin of Species, Charles Kingsley--a prominent clergyman of the Church of England and a friend of Darwin--wrote a letter to Darwin, which included this remark:
"I have gradually learnt to see that it is just as noble a conception of Deity, to believe that he created primal forms capable of self development into all forms needful pro tempore & pro loco, as to believe that He required a fresh act of intervention to supply the lacunas which he himself had made."
Darwin wrote to John Murray, his publisher, that Kingsley's "capital sentence" should be inserted into the second edition of Origin, "in answer to anyone who may, as many will, say that my Book is irreligious."  This sentence was introduced into the concluding section of Origin as showing that there is "no good reason why the views given in this volume should shock the religious feelings of any one" (Origin of Species, Modern Library/Random House, 1936, pp. 367-68).

But can the creation of human beings "in the image of God" arise by purely natural evolution without any miraculous intervention by God?  Pope John Paul II and Pope Francis--and Catholics generally--have embraced theistic evolution in conceding that Darwin's theory of evolution has been verified.  But they have also declared that the creation of the human soul requires an "ontological leap" through a miraculous divine act that transcends natural evolution.  (I have written about that here.)

Darwin suggests, however, that even the creation of the soul might be explained by natural evolution. Here is the last sentence of The Descent of Man:
"I have given the evidence to the best of my ability; and we must acknowledge, as it seems to me, that man with all his noble qualities, with sympathy which feels for the most debased, with benevolence which extends not only to other men but to the humblest living creature, with his god-like intellect which has penetrated into the movements and constitution of the solar system--with all these exalted powers--Man still bears in his bodily frame the indelible stamp of his lowly origin."
Darwin's reference to the "god-like intellect" of human beings suggests that there might be some truth in the biblical idea that human beings bear the image of God.  But still, Darwin argues, all of the "noble qualities" of humanity can be explained as products of a natural evolution from lower animals.

To support this conclusion, Darwin offered evidence of the anatomical, behavioral, and mental similarities between human beings and other animals.  But he also saw that human beings were unique in their capacities for language, self-conscious reflection, and the moral sense.  Now, recent research in evolutionary neuroscience allows us to explain the emergent evolution of the mind in the brain, which includes the human mind's capacity for moral judgment, which allows us to recognize our natural rights, such as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Jefferson foresaw this, because he studied some of the earliest neurological experiments showing how mental activity was correlated with the stimulation of the brain, which Jefferson took as evidence of how mind arises naturally from the material brain.  This came up in his correspondence with John Adams: "Why may not the mode of action called thought, have been given to a material organ of peculiar structure? as that of magnetism is to the Needle, or of elasticity to the spring by a particular manipulation of the steel?" (letter to Adams, March 14, 1820).  (I have written about this here.)

Monday, June 11, 2018

Nature's God: The Lucretian, Spinozist, and Darwinian Deity of the Declaration of Independence

It is often claimed that a Darwinian science of human evolution denies the political theory of natural rights in the Declaration of Independence by denying the Declaration's appeal to God as the Creator who has endowed human beings with unalienable rights.  Darwin seemed to clearly deny this when he wrote: "Man in his arrogance thinks himself a great work, worthy of the interposition of a deity, more humble, and I believe true, to consider him created from animals" (1987, 300).  If human beings have been "created from animals," it might seem that they have not been specially created by God in His image and thus endowed with that moral dignity that sets them apart from other animals.

For this reason, William Jennings Bryan (1922, 1924) warned that Darwinian evolution was an assault on the American political theology of the Declaration, which was one of his reasons for joining the prosecution in the famous Scopes trial in 1925, where John Scopes, a public school teacher, was charged with teaching that human beings evolved from a lower animals, in violation of a Tennessee law prohibiting such teaching.

As an alternative to teaching Darwinian evolution, Bryan and his followers have argued for teaching "creation science" or "intelligent design theory."  Proponents of intelligent design have been motivated by their belief that Darwinian evolution promotes a culturally degrading materialism that denies the creationist theology that is foundational not only for American life but for Western civilization in general.  The Discovery Institute, the leading organization promoting intelligent design theory, made this point clear in 1998 in the founding document for its "Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture," which has a reproduction of Michelangelo's "Creation of Adam" painting on its cover, and which begins:
"The proposition that human beings are created in the image of God is one of the bedrock principles on which Western civilization was built.  Its influence can be detected in most, if not all, of the West's greatest achievements, including representative democracy, human rights, free enterprise, and progress in the arts and sciences."
Thus, the Darwinian denial of the creationist theology of the Declaration of Independence can be seen as a general denial of the whole idea of human rights.  Theorists of human rights like Michael Perry (1998, 2007) have contended that international norms of human rights must be founded on the principle of the sacredness of human life as created in God's image (the subject of a previous post).

Against my argument for "Darwinian liberalism," Adam Seagrave (2011) and many others (Dilley et al. 2013), including the Straussians, have insisted that the Lockean liberal conception of natural rights depends on Locke's creationist anthropology, which is contrary to Darwin's evolutionary science (the subject of posts here and here).

Similarly, Carl Becker in his classic study in 1922 of the Declaration of Independence concluded that modern Darwinian science had refuted the Declaration's recourse to "God or the Transcendent Idea." After all, Becker explained, Darwin had shown how all forms of life could be explained as the result of purely natural material causes:
"When so much the greater part of the universe showed itself amenable to the reign of a purely material natural law, it was difficult to suppose that man (a creature in many respects astonishingly like the higher forms of apes) could have been permitted to live under a special dispensation.  it was much simpler to assume one origin for all life and one law for all growth; simpler to assume that man was only the most highly organized of the creatures (the missing link would doubtless shortly be found), and to think of his history accordingly, as only a more subtly negotiated struggle for existence and survival" (Becker 1941, 274-75).
This dispute over whether Darwinism contradicts the theology of the Declaration depends on how one identifies the God of the Declaration. If one interprets the Declaration's deity as a transcendent creative agent working against the laws of nature in  miraculously endowing human beings with a supernatural soul, that would contradict the Darwinian account of natural human evolution.  But if one interprets the Declaration's deity as an immanent creative power working through the laws of nature for the emergent evolution of human beings, that would be compatible with Darwinian science.  In this case, we could see the appeal in the first sentence of the Declaration to "the laws of Nature and of Nature's God" as implying that God and Nature are two ways of talking about the same thing.  Nature's God is the God of the deists, the God of Spinoza, a way of talking about God long after the death of God.

One of the first of America's revolutionaries to declare his belief in "Nature's God" was Thomas Young.  In 1770, three years before he would become the instigator of the Boston Tea Party, Young responded to a sermon by the revivalist George Whitefield denouncing American Deists as Satanic atheists.  In the Boston Evening Post (August 27, 1770), Young proudly professed his deist faith in the God who could be known by reasoning about nature rather than from biblical revelation: "That the religion of Nature, more properly stiled the Religion of Nature's God, in latin call'd Deus, hence Deism, is truth, I now boldly defy thee to contest."  (Thomas Young was mentored by Samuel Adams in Boston, and then he mentored Ethan Allen, the leader of the Green Mountain Boys in Vermont.)

To better understand this "Religion of Nature's God," Young recommended "[Alexander] Pope's little Essay on Man, confessedly deduced from the inspiration of Lord Bolingbroke, and perhaps every sentence adopted by me."  Indeed, the first appearance of the term "Nature's God" in English was in Pope's Essay on Man, a philosophical poem published in 1734, where in explaining how "Virtue alone is Happiness below," he observes:
"Slave to no sect, who takes no private road,
"But looks thro' Nature, up to Nature's God" (4.331-32)
Echoing the monistic naturalism of Epicurus, Lucretius, and Spinoza, Pope speaks of Nature and God interchangeably, in denying sectarian religion in favor of a natural religion in which "true piety," as Lucretius declared, is not to bow before the gods, but to contemplate nature's wondrous order (On the Nature of Things, 5.1197-1203).

Pope's Essay on Man also shows the first published use of the phrase "science of Human Nature" (Pope 2016, lv, 4).

Pope's book was dedicated to Henry St. John, Viscount Bolingbroke (1678-1751), who became notorious for his posthumously published Philosophical Works that attacked Christianity and promoted an Epicurean and Spinozist atheism or natural religion.  "The law of nature is the law of God," he explained, and therefore the laws of the Bible that contradict nature cannot truly be God's laws.  As a young man, Thomas Jefferson copied this and many other passages from Bolingbroke into his Literary Commonplace Book (sec. 36).

In his private correspondence, Jefferson affirmed his Epicurean materialism: "I too am an Epicurean" (letter to William Short, October 31, 1819).  In his correspondence with John Adams, he rejected the "spiritualism" of traditional Christianity and defended a monistic conception of human nature in which mind is an activity of the physical brain.  (I have written about that here.)  He thought that Jesus was originally a great teacher of natural morality, but then his moral teaching was corrupted by a tradition of Christian miracle-working spiritualism.  He edited his own personal version of the New Testament in which he cut out all of the stories of miracles and of the divinity of Jesus.

Although Jefferson kept all of this private during his lifetime, his published writing--and particularly his Notes on the State of Virginia (written in 1781 and published in 1787)--provided enough evidence for him to be generally identified as an "infidel."  In the presidential election of 1800, ministers published sermons warning Christians not to vote for this "open infidel."  John Mitchell Mason (1991 [originally 1800]) quoted one of the most infamous passages in the Notes on Virginia: "The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others.  But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty Gods or no God.  It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg."  Mason identified this as a clear statement of infidelity or atheism, because it affirmed that a society could be founded in atheism, and that religion was not necessary for social order.

Remarkably, Mason said that many Christians in 1800 were saying that "there is no prospect of obtaining a real Christian, and we had better choose an infidel than a hypocrite" (1991, 1468).  His reply was to argue that it was better to vote for hypocrites like George Washington and John Adams--who hide their infidelity behind their professions of religion--than to vote for an open infidel like Jefferson, because at least hypocrites show public respect for religion.  The fact that the Constitution of the United States never mentions God makes it even more imperative, Mason observes, for Christians to elect either Christians or hypocrites rather than open infidels, if there is to be any chance of slowing America's decline into atheism.

But even if Jefferson was infected with the Epicurean infidelity of Lucretius, Spinoza, Bolingbroke, and Pope, one might assume that the political theology of the Declaration of Independence echoes the Christian creationism of John Locke.  But many of Locke's Christian critics--including Bishop Stillingfleet, Leibniz, and William Carroll--accused Locke of hiding his Epicurean and Spinozist infidelity behind his pretensions of orthodox Christianity.  Carroll argued that Locke had advanced a "double View, double Design, intended to fool the pious while promoting Spinozism."  After all, a careful reading of Locke shows his slippery language--sliding between "the laws of God," "the laws of Nature," or "the laws of God and Nature," and moving from "God has designed" to "Nature has designed"--so that his deity looks like Spinoza's: "God or Nature" (see The Second Treatise of Government, secs. 1, 4, 60, 66, 142, 195; Essay Concerning Human Understanding, 2.9.12, 2.10.3).  (For a meticulous account of how Epicurean naturalism was transmitted through Lucretius, Spinoza, and Locke to the American founders, see Matthew Stewart's book Nature's God: The Heretical Origins of the American Republic.)

How one interprets the theology of the Declaration of Independence is connected with one's interpretation of its Lockean morality of natural rights.  A transcendent conception of the Declaration's deity will support a transcendent conception of its morality, so that its Lockean morality will depend upon the supernatural authority of God's commands as revealed in the Bible.  Consequently, infidelity or atheism will deny that morality.  By contrast, an immanent conception of the Declaration's deity will support an immanent conception if its morality, so that its Lockean morality will depend upon human reason's grasp of a natural moral law known by human experience without any need for supernatural revelation.

The Declaration is open to both interpretations.  The openness to a transcendent deity was enhanced by the changes made to Jefferson's first draft.  In that first draft, "Nature's God" was Jefferson's only reference to a deity.  Later, other members of the Congress added three more references to deity: "they are endowed by their Creator" in the second sentence; "appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intensions" in the penultimate sentence; and "with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence" in the last sentence.  God as Creator, as Supreme Judge, and as Providential Caregiver does suggest a divine agency above or beyond the natural world that might intervene miraculously in the natural world against natural law to serve His purposes, and thus enforcing a transcendent morality.  (On the drafting of the Declaration, see Becker's book.)

So, for example, as I indicated in my previous posts, some American charismatic evangelicals can appeal to "the protection of divine Providence" in their belief that God intervened in the presidential election of 2016 to give Donald Trump a miraculous victory in response to prayers from Christians asking for His aid.

But if one interprets "Nature's God" as the immanent creative power of nature itself, one could affirm a natural Lockean morality rooted in human nature and reason.  That was Jefferson's position in arguing for a natural moral sense that did not necessarily depend on believing in a transcendent God of the Bible who enforced morality with supernatural rewards and punishments.  Darwin agreed with this, and it has been reinforced by recent developments in the evolutionary psychology of morality.

When Jefferson and Adams resumed their correspondence in 1812, after it had broken off during their period of being political opponents, much of what they wrote over the next 15 years was about their hope that Nature's God of the scientific Enlightenment would finally prevail over the priestly superstition enforcing tyranny over the human mind.  In his letter of September 14, 1813, Adams wrote to Jefferson saying that he would be happy to hear that the British Parliament had passed a bill to repeal the provisions of the Toleration Act of 1689 that made it illegal to deny the Christian doctrine of the Trinity; and he declared:
"The human Understanding is a revelation from its Maker which can never be disputed or doubted.  There can be no Scepticism, Pyrrhonism or Incredulity or Infidelity here.  No Prophecies, no Miracles are necessary to prove this celestial communication.  This revelation has made it certain that  two and one make three; and that one is not three; nor can three be one.  We can never be so certain of any Prophecy, or the fulfillment of any Prophecy; or of any miracle, or the design of any miracle as We are, from the revelation of nature i.e. nature's God that two and two are equal to four.  Miracles or Prophecies might fright Us out of our Wits; might scare us to death; might induce Us to lie; to say that We believe that 2 and 2 make 5. But We should not believe it. We should know the contrary" (Cappon, 1987, p. 373).
Clearly then, Nature's God is not three (Father, Son, Holy Spirit), but one with Nature itself; and Nature's God is known not by faith in miracles but by human understanding of the natural order of things.

Some of these points are elaborated in posts hereherehere, and here.


Becker, Carl. 1942. The Declaration of Independence: A Study in the History of  Political Ideas. New York: Random House.

Bryan, William Jennings. 1922. In His Image. New York: Fleming H. Revell.

Bryan, William Jennings. 1924. Seven Questions in Dispute. New York: Fleming H. Revell.

Cappon, Lester J., ed. 1987. The Adams-Jefferson Letters. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Darwin, Charles. 1987. Charles Darwin's Notebooks, 1836-1844. Ed. Paul H. Barrett et al. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Dilley, Stephen, ed. 2013. Darwinian Evolution and Classical Liberalism: Theories in Tension. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.

Jefferson, Thomas. 1989. Jefferson's Literary Commonplace Book. Ed. Douglas L. Wilson. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Mason, John Mitchell. 1991 (orig. 1800). "The Voice of Warning to Christians." In Political Sermons of the American Founding Era, 1447-1476. Ed. Ellis Sandoz. Indianapolis: Liberty Press.

Perry, Michael. 1998. The Idea of Human Rights. New York: Oxford University Press.

Perry, Michael. 2007. Toward a Theory of Human Rights. New York: Oxford University Press.

Pope, Alexander. 2016. An Essay on Man. Edited and with an Introduction by Tom Jones. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Seagrave. S. Adam. 2011. "Darwin and the Declaration." Politics and the Life Sciences 30: 2-16.

Stewart, Matthew. 2014. Nature's God: The Heretical Origins of the American Republic. New York: Norton.