Hispanic Scholasticism and the Jeffersonian Idea


This paper was read at the University of Virginia at the XXXVIII ALDEEU conference of June 2018. The phrase ‘Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness’ was Thomas Jefferson’s rewriting of Locke’s dictum, ‘Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Property.’ Locke’s political philosophy speaks of a coming liberal age, engendering the Declaration of Independence. Anglo-Saxon historiography seemed to assure that Locke’s ideas were the autochthonous result of a historical process centered on the Reformation, Cromwellian parliamentary supremacy, and English commercial practices. Some continental philosophers look instead to the theologians of the School of Salamanca for the European origins of liberty. In this paper I will examine the recent scholarship about the impressive contribution of this School which led Jefferson to ground the Declaration of Independence in scholastic thought. These scholastics provided the philosophical, legal, and economic framework for modern Europe, as it transitioned from its medieval concepts of social organization to the more liberal and individualistic one now. They were influential for a simple reason. The scholastic program used reason to develop its concepts of free will, popular sovereignty, and property rights – which well correspond to Locke’s phrase – and placed them in a congruent philosophical system derived from first principles using natural law. It was this coherent, logical framework that appealed most to the later thinkers Jefferson relied on when searching for a sound philosophical basis for the Declaration. The Hispanic neo-scholastics applied natural law to prior Conciliarist parliamentary ideas to establish a new relationship between the individual, the community, and the state. This framework emphasized a greater separation of church and state, popular sovereignty, deposition of kings, and checks on monarchical power. Others, including Protestants and Enlightenment thinkers, were later drawn to this system due to its sound basing in an essentialist, classical, natural law drawn from first principles. It was this foundational coherence which attracted others, including Jefferson, who tended to mistrust the basis of the resistance theorists that also relied on historicism or scripture, such as George Buchanan, the authors of Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos, or Locke himself.

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