“But I know also that laws and institutions must go hand in hand
with the progress of the human mind.”
I can’t help but reflexively recoil whenever I come across “progress” as typically used in the context of political science. It reeks of the Left, of so-called progressives, of those responsible for the damage done to our republic. I’ll put that thought aside.
So what did Jefferson mean? What of this thing called progress?
As one of its children, Jefferson referred to The Enlightenment. This explosion of ideas derived from Natural Law and discoveries drawn from the experience and lessons of ancient, medieval, renaissance and modern times is reflected in his shining work, the Declaration of Independence.
It is there that the Framers paid a “decent Respect to the Opinions of Mankind.” Like modern American opinion, the general opinion of mankind in 1776 didn’t differentiate between what is legal and what is just. Parliament enacted thoroughly legal statutes for their colonies. The Stamp Act, Townshend Act, and various duties on commerce were all properly enacted laws. Similar if not identical laws applied to other English overseas possessions.
So what was the big deal? Why revolution? Why risk their property and necks in a revolt? The Founders took issue with the injustice of English actions. Just laws comply with the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God, and our Declaration itemized to a skeptical world the legal yet unjust crimes of George III. Our Founders paid decent respect to the opinions of mankind . . . and disagreed.
What had happened during the preceding seventy or so years was a quiet revolution in thinking among thirteen of England’s North American colonies. Progress of the Jeffersonian sort had occurred. Where the lessons of the Enlightenment and Glorious Revolution of 1688 had fallen on somewhat fallow ground in England, they germinated, took root, and flowered in America.
While 17th century England was preoccupied with interminable religious and civil wars, her young colonies grew prosperous in a Lockean State of Nature. As these civil societies matured in the early 18th century, the lessons of John Locke and Algernon Sidney found their way into a series of articles published in colonial newspapers. Collectively called Cato’s Letters, these articles introduced Americans to the philosophy of John Locke and the polemics of a republican martyr, Algernon Sidney. This was real progress. What several generations had learned through their own experiences was presented in intellectual form for the ages.
As the Founding generation entered adulthood, the lessons and maxims of The Enlightenment were well known to the educated and not unfamiliar to the yeomanry.
This was real intellectual progress. As long as laws and institutions followed, broad societal happiness could not be far behind. Follow the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God as a matter of justice, admit no law without the consent of the people, and enshrine institutions designed to uphold these maxims in a Constitution.