Bellarmine, Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence

EDITORIAL: Any discussion of genius and influence must include two names, one the author of the Declaration of Independence and the other a doctor of the Church.

St. Robert Bellarmine (l) and Thomas Jefferson
St. Robert Bellarmine (l) and Thomas Jefferson (photo: Public domain)

Editor’s Note: This editorial originally appeared in the June 26, 2016, issue of the Register. It is reprinted here in honor of the Fourth of July.


On the day that the Continental Congress approved its resolution for independence for the American colonies, July 2, 1776, John Adams wrote Patrick Henry, “The decree is gone forth, and it cannot be recalled, that a more equal liberty than has prevailed in other parts of the earth must be established in America.” 

The formal Declaration of Independence that was approved two days later was a masterful statement of the rights of men in an age of royal absolutism.

It also had deep Catholic roots.

At a time when many Americans have lost touch with both the historical and philosophical foundations of the United States, Independence Day — July 4th — is always a good opportunity to reflect on the particular genius of our Founding Founders and the influences that shaped their thought and actions.

But any discussion of genius and influence must include two names, one the author of the Declaration of Independence and the other a doctor of the Church.

Thomas Jefferson is honored rightly as one of the greatest minds in American history, who bequeathed to his country a statement of principles that began the extraordinary experiment of the American republic. It is surprising to learn, then, that a careful study of the Declaration reveals striking parallels between Jefferson’s eloquent appeal to the unalienable rights of men and self-determination and the Church’s teachings on the human person and a properly ordered society. In fact, nearly two centuries before Jefferson, his very same ideas were written by a Counter-Reformation Catholic of equal genius: the Jesuit theologian, saint, cardinal and doctor of the Church Robert Bellarmine (1542-1621).

Consider just a few of the most memorable lines from the Declaration of Independence:

“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 … that, to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed; that whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles, and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.”

When we read the writings of Robert Bellarmine, such as De Laicis, his treatise on civil government, what do we find? “All men,” Bellarmine wrote, “are equal, not in wisdom or grace, but in the essence and nature of mankind” (Chapter Seven). Considering the origins of political power, Bellarmine taught, “Political power emanates from God. Government was introduced by divine law, but the divine law has given this power to no particular man. … Men must be governed by someone, lest they be willing to perish. It is impossible for men to live together without someone to care for the common good. Society must have power to protect and preserve itself. It depends upon the consent of the multitude to constitute over itself a king, consul, or other magistrate. … For legitimate reasons the people can change the government to an aristocracy or a democracy or vice versa” (Chapter Six).

It has been asked, of course, whether there is any proof that Jefferson ever read Bellarmine, let alone the teachings of the Church. One helpful answer was provided in a famous 1928 paper written by Father John Rager that he presented to the American Catholic Historical Association. Father Rager pointed out that Jefferson had in his personal library (preserved in the Library of Congress) a well-read and heavily annotated copy of Patriarcha: The Naturall Power of Kinges Defended Against the Unnatural Liberty of the People, By Arguments, Theological, Rational, Historical and Legall by the acerbic Protestant theologian Robert Filmer, who had been the court theologian to King James I of England and who was fiercely vigilant against any threat to the divine right of kings. Filmer focused in his book on Bellarmine’s idea of popular sovereignty, and even a casual perusal of the text by Jefferson would have placed the cardinal’s thought squarely before him.

It is also easy to pretend that Bellarmine was accidentally ahead of his time with his thoughts about the human person, the common good and proper civil order. In truth, Bellarmine was profoundly grounded in the teachings of the Church, most notably another doctor of the Church, St. Thomas Aquinas. The “Angelic Doctor” made huge contributions to the Catholic teaching tradition on the human person and on natural law, but he, too, was amplifying authentic teachings. Bellarmine was not a theological accident. He was a powerful spokesman for the Church’s eternally valuable insights into the human condition, and Jefferson apparently drew inspiration from them.

If, then, Jefferson was influenced by Bellarmine, the author of the Declaration was also shaped by Aquinas and the whole of the Catholic intellectual tradition. And so, too, was America’s chosen form of government.

So, as we enjoy the Fourth of July, we should not forget the Catholic role in why we celebrate it and how fleeting our memories can be.

America is now 240 years old, and we would do well to remember that, had other Catholic teachings on the human person and the common good been embraced over the years with such ostensible enthusiasm as that of Jefferson’s use of Catholic political philosophy, many tragic events in American history, such as slavery, might have been avoided.

From authentic marriage to the care of the weakest and most vulnerable from conception to natural death, the wisdom of the Church needs to be heard in America’s discourse more than ever. Her teachings have always withstood human frailty. The hallowed American republic, built on self-governance and liberty, may not. 


Matthew Bunson is a senior editor to the Register and senior contributor for EWTN News.